If Ebola Arrives in U.S., What Happens? Page 2

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Health specialists prepare for work in an isolation ward for patients at the Doctors Without Borders facility in Guékedou, southern Guinea.
AFP/Getty Images

On the off-chance that the situation did occur, here's what would happen: The patient would be transferred to an isolation ward, and all health care workers coming in contact with the person would wear full personal protective equipment. Ebola is classified as a biosafety level 4 virus, so testing for the virus would happen in one of a few labs in the nation qualified to safely handle the virus in air-controlled rooms.

Once a diagnosis was confirmed, contact tracing would begin: Anyone the person had contact with -- on an airplane, at a market, at a family gathering -- would be informed of the situation and monitored. That's a much easier task in a developed country that has ready access to communication than it's been in Africa, where cultural, language, communication and transportation hurdles must be overcome to relay information.

This spring, for example, a man with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) landed in Indiana, and a man checked into a hospital in Minnesota with Lassa fever. In both cases, health workers followed contact tracing protocol (requiring getting in touch with 140 people), and the viruses were contained.

What Is Ebola?

In the Indiana case, the Indiana Department of Public Health traced everybody on the bus the patient traveled on, on his flights, in the waiting room, visitors to the hospital, and family. The CDC tested over 50 people and found one with mild MERS. In the Minnesota case, over 140 people were contacted and no one else was diagnosed with the disease.

Because the incubation period of Ebola is relatively long -- up to 21 days, the list of contacts gets extensive quickly.

"The CDC and state public health departments are able to do it, but that's not always the case where the outbreaks are," said Dan Epstein, a World Health Organization spokesman.

Until a vaccine is approved -- and although Geisbert's lab has developed three leading candidates that work in animal models, it could take up to six years before an inoculation is ready for humans -- Americans at the greatest risk are health care workers in the outbreak areas.

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