Commentary: What Would Happen if Ebola Virus Spread to the U.S.?

    In the wake of the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, Dr. Rena Jones, a Research Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, Excelsior College faculty instructor, and an expert on Public Health and Epidemiology, shared her thoughts with Excelsior Life via email. You can access the full interview via Excelsior Commentary, our “Experts Blog.”

    What is Ebola and what makes this outbreak in Africa different than those of the past?

    Ebola virus is the cause of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, a highly fatal disease that occurs in both humans and non-human primates. The primary symptoms include fever, headache and muscle aches, as well as diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and lack of appetite. Weakness and abnormal bleeding may also occur. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person or with contaminated objects, like needles. Humans can also contract Ebola virus through consumption of blood, milk, or raw or undercooked meat of an infected animal. The fruit bat is a suspected reservoir for the virus; it carries the disease although it does not appear to be affected. Although some of the symptoms are similar to influenza, Ebola is not a respiratory disease and is not known to be transmitted through the air. It is also not transmitted through food or water supplies.

    Does the long incubation period prevent person-to-person transmission or slow the spread of Ebola?

    Symptoms most commonly appear 8-10 days after exposure to Ebola virus, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that they may appear as early as 2 days and as long as 21 days after exposure.

    A long incubation period for any infectious disease may actually hinder containment of its spread. If an individual is not aware of their exposure, and symptoms do not appear for 8-10 days, they could have potentially traveled far and come into contact with many people during that length of time. A rapid progression from exposure to illness would limit this opportunity to infect others. However, even with a long incubation period, if a person knows they have been exposed, we can get them into quarantine quickly and potentially before they experience symptoms. The faster an individual is isolated the better, because you can expose others even if you are not experiencing symptoms.

    There has been much debate about whether bringing the two infected Americans back to the U.S. poses a public health threat. In your view, is this a concern?

    Read the rest of the interview with Dr. Jones on Excelsior Commentary.