NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy airports are among 20 ports of entry locations in the U.S. with quarantine stations that have been staffed with health officials trained to look for symptoms of Ebola in passengers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it will evaluate any travelers with signs of dangerous infectious diseases and isolate them when necessary.
U.S. health officials on Thursday warned Americans not to travel to the three West African countries hit by an outbreak of Ebola.
The advisory applies to nonessential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where Ebola has killed more than 700 people this year.
“The bottom line is Ebola is worsening in West Africa,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, who announced the travel warning. He called Ebola “a tragic, dreadful and merciless virus.”
The purpose of the travel warning is to not only protect U.S. travelers, but limit their use of overburdened clinics and hospitals for injuries or other illnesses, he said.
For more than a month, the CDC has advised travelers to simply take precautions when in the outbreak region.
Thursday’s alert is the highest-level. The World Health Organization, however, has not issued a similar travel warning for the West Africa region. The last time the CDC issued a high-level warning was in 2003 because of a SARS outbreak in Asia.
The current outbreak is the largest since the disease first emerged in Africa nearly 40 years ago.
“This virus, if not taken care of, will be a global pandemic,” said Liberia Deputy Chief Medical Officer Tolbert Nyenswah.
The virus is contagious and is spread by direct contact with blood or bodily fluids from a sick person. Ebola can’t be spread like flu through casual contact or breathing in the same air.
In Liberia, one American has died and two American aid workers are in serious condition.
The two American aid workers are Dr. Kent Brantly, who works for the group Samaritan’s Purse, and Nancy Writebol, a missionary with SIM.
Samaritan’s Purse said Friday that medical evacuation efforts are underway for both.
A small private jet based in Atlanta has been dispatched to Liberia. Officials said the jet is outfitted with a special, portable tent designed for transporting patients with highly infectious diseases.
The plane can only carry one patient and officials have not said who is to be picked up. Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital said it expects one of the patients to be transferred there “within the next several days.” The hospital has a special isolation unit.
The second patient is expected to arrive a few days after the first, CBS 2’s Sonia Rincon reported.
“We feel that we have the environment and expertise to care for these patients and offer them the maximum opportunity for recovery from these infections,” said Dr. Bruce Ribner, with the Emory Hospital Isolation Unit.
The hospital has put in place every precaution possible to protect staff and visitors the same way they would against hepatitis or HIV, Rincon reported.
There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola, so the doctors at Emory University Hospital said treatment will be as with any severe infection: supportive care to help the body’s immune system do its job.
At JFK Friday morning, there were mixed feelings from travelers about bringing Brantly and Writebol back to the U.S.
‘They’re Americans, they belong in their country,” one person said. “Who’s going to take care of them if we don’t?”
“How is that going to affect others? I also think the risk is going to be much greater if they come here than if they didn’t,” said travel Tony Bushell.
The CDC has said that the risk of a traveler bringing the Ebola virus to the United States remains small.
“We’re fairly comfortable that if a patient were identified here in the U.S., the normal kinds of barrier nursing precautions that would be in place would prevent spread, even before the person was confirmed to be a case of Ebola,” said the CDC’s Dr. Stephan Monroe.
On Monday, the agency sent a health alert to U.S. doctors, updating them about the outbreak. The alert stressed they should ask about foreign travel in patients who come down with Ebola-like symptoms, including fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea.
Even if a traveler infected with Ebola came to the U.S., the risk of an outbreak is considered very low, Frieden said. Patients are contagious only when they show symptoms and U.S. hospitals are well equipped to isolate cases and control spread of the virus.
Frieden said a widespread Ebola outbreak in the United States “is not in the cards.”
Many travelers at Newark airport Friday morning weren’t too concerned.
“Travel as usual,” one man told 1010 WINS’ Glenn Schuck.
Others called the quarantine zones an excellent idea.
“Absolutely a good thing,” another man said. “We don’t need any viruses coming to the country by people who are contaminated.”
The World Health Organization is launching a $100 million response, which includes sending more medical personnel to the impacted region. The CDC plans to send 50 experts, aiming to stop the crisis.
President Obama said the CDC will be working closely with WHO and that there are steps in place to screen travelers from the affected countries on both ends, Rincon reported.
“We feel confident that the procedures we’ve put in place are appropriate,” Obama said.
U.S. companies are helping too. AmeriCares, based in Stamford, Conn., is sending three shipments of medical supplies.
“With over 1,300 people infected already and the virus spreading rapidly, there is virtually an endless demand for safety equipment,” AmeriCares Vice President of Emergency Response Garrett Ingoglia said in a statement on the group’s website. “If we don’t support the frontline health workers, there is no hope for controlling the epidemic.”
For more information on Ebola from the CDC, click here.
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