Ebola: Is it a threat to Minnesota?

Samaritan's Purse staff putting on protective gear
Staff of Samaritan's Purse putting on protective gear in the ELWA hospital in the Liberian capital.

The city of Brooklyn Park this weekend holds a meeting on the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, a world away. Brooklyn Park has one of the largest populations of Liberians outside of Liberia --- about 30,000 people. Ebola has killed nearly 700 people in several West African nations including Liberia. And many people travel from the U.S. to Liberia daily.

• More: US warns against traveling to Ebola-hit countries

Decontee Sawyer
Decontee Sawyer, wife of Liberian government official Patrick Sawyer, a U.S. citizen who died from Ebola.

The first U.S. citizen to die of Ebola had ties to Minnesota and was planning to travel here in the next few weeks to visit his three children. Patrick Sawyer worked for the Liberian government but was on a business trip to Lagos, Nigeria when he died.

With deadly diseases just a plane ride away these days, we wondered what the likelihood is that we could see a case of Ebola in this country.

Dr. Michael Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He joined MPR's Cathy Wurzer on the phone.

Cathy Wurzer: Good morning, Doctor.

Dr. Michael Osterholm: Good morning.

Wurzer: The online news site Slate had a headline that read "It's not the disease that makes Ebola so deadly, it's where it happens." What does that mean?

Osterholm: Well first of all, this is part a media disease, and I mean that by the fact that while there surely are real concerns about the almost 2,000 cases, 700-some deaths, this is really a disease primarily of western Africa that is only acquired by actual physical contact with someone who has the disease. Meaning you have to contact one of their body fluids --- vomiting, diarrhea, or blood. It's not transmitted via the air, it's not transmitted by casual contact of just being in the same room as someone.

So from a public health standpoint, this isn't an easy-to-catch kind of disease that you have to worry about.

Wurzer: So how big could this outbreak become though, as people do travel back and forth, and they have relatives who might be infected?

Osterholm: There surely is a possibility of a case transmitting the virus to someone else under the following scenario: First of all, the incubation period or the time from which you're exposed until you get sick, is anywhere from three to 21 days. One is not infectious until they actually get sick with fever, muscle aches, sore throat, often vomiting and diarrhea also occur. Anytime before that, you're not going to transmit the virus, even with physical contact. Once someone does become sick, as long as you don't have contact with those body fluids, which of course can be a problem if someone has vomiting or diarrhea, there is not going to be any transmission.

In the past, there have been two dozen outbreaks of Ebola virus dating back more than 40 years, which were actually quickly brought under control with no drugs or vaccines, merely by what we call good infection control practices. Where people made sure that they didn't have contact with these body fluids, and that would end them.

This one has been different for several reasons. It's not that the virus has changed, but Africa's changed. People travel much longer distances, people are not willing to cooperate with public health, or medical officials, or even the government. So they hide cases because they're fearful that they'll be taken away. People have, the educational level here is very low relative to modern infection control practices. People continue to wash the bodies before burial, despite the fact that these caked on body fluids of these dead bodies are highly infectious.

And so it's really about just doing the things that we know how to do --- traditional public health education, good infection control should bring this under control. But it hasn't so far, and there's going to have to be a major infusion of resources in education and so forth to make that happen.

Wurzer: Evidently first responders in Brooklyn Park, as I mentioned home to about 30,000 Liberians, have a new policy under which first responders will wear eye shields and face masks as well as gloves in responding to cases where there are flu-like symptoms. Is that an overreaction?

Osterholm: Well I wouldn't say it's an overreaction under one condition: if in fact there's evidence a person had a recent travel history to this area of the world. Just because you are originally from Liberia or because of the fact that you know somebody who is from Liberia, doesn't mean that you in any way, shape or form will be infected.

So I would think that if you can ascertain very quickly upon arriving in the scene, has this person had any foreign travel in the past several weeks, and in that foreign travel was any of it to Western Africa, you'd be fine.

Wurzer: Always a good conversation, I appreciate your time.

Osterholm: Thanks very much, Cathy.

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