Patrick Tucker August 1, 2014
On Thursday, the Nigerian government announced that they had started screening passengers at international airports for signs of Ebola after a passenger showed up in Lagos suffering from the illness, which kills up to 90 percent of the people infected with it. Treatment options are extremely limited. Nigerian airport authorities will be checking passengers who just arrived from Sierra Leone, currently under a state of emergency, and they’ll be looking for fever, since an elevated temperature is considered a sign of Ebola. If the passenger is presenting with higher than normal temperatures, screeners would subject the passenger to a blood test.
The recent Ebola outbreak has already arrived in the United States, under careful observation. The CDC confirmed that at least one Ebola victim is headed out of Africa to the United States to be treated in Atlanta. The patient will be flown in a special jet called the N173PA. “The plane will be arriving at Dobbins Airbase in Georgia, and from there the patients will be transported on to whatever the medical facility they’re going to be treated in. But that’s the limit of our involvement,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday. Authorities didn’t disclose the patient’s name but researchers know of at least one American doctor, Kent Brantly, of Fort Worth, Texas, who was working to staunch the outbreak in Liberia and who picked up the illness.
“All I am aware of, in terms of U.S. military involvement, is that we have a couple of Army researchers down in Africa, in Liberia, right now who have been for some time working on this particular virus,” Kirby said.
The good news is that neither the White House nor the epidemiologists that spoke to Defense One expects Ebola to have nearly as deadly an effect in the U.S. as it is having in Africa, where more than 729 people have already died.
The bad news is that thermal screenings of the international flying population at airports are not likely to yield much by way of improved safety.
Here’s why: fever can be a sign of a lot of different illnesses, not just Ebola. And thermal scanning proved to be a poor method of catching bird flu carriers in 2009 as well. So presenting with an elevated temperature at an airport checkpoint does not indicate clearly enough that the fevered person is carrying the deadly virus. More importantly, the incubation period for Ebola is two days. As many as 20 days can pass before symptoms show up. That means that an individual could be carrying the virus for two weeks or longer and not even know it, much less have it show up via thermal scan. So what good are these scanners?
“I think that thermal screeners help people feel safe,” Dr. Noreen Hynes with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Defense One.
The second method that the Nigerian government is taking to detect the presence of Ebola in—possibly—feverish passengers is a blood test. The presence of antibodies in the blood is a much more conclusive sign of the deadly virus. Unfortunately, subjecting hundreds or possibly thousands of passengers to a blood test for Ebola would be practically impossible in a major airport without slowing International air travel to a halt. The current method for performing one of these tests, also called a polymerase chain reaction test, can take eight hours or longer, requires results to be sent to a lab, and is prohibitively expensive in many cases.