Despite one death in Texas, the Alexandria Health Department reassured local citizens at a City Council meeting that a widespread outbreak of Ebola was unlikely.
“I can assure everybody that we have a robust and strong public health system,” said Dr. Stephen Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department. “We have good working relationships with our local partners.”
Various members of the local health community attended the Oct. 21 meeting to address City Council’s questions concerning the deadly virus. The outbreak, which was confirmed in March, has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, but Haering says there are several advantages the U.S. has over those countries that reduce the threat of an outbreak.
The primary advantage is the United States’ more robust health care infrastructure. While the American medical system is not perfect, Haering said, it was a far cry from the lack of medical treatment and sanitation in most of West Africa. Ebola, which spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids, is most widespread in regions without sanitized water systems or the equipment to limit contamination. Haering noted that similar situations occur with most viral outbreaks.
“[There were] 12 cases of tuberculosis last year in the United States, all of them imported,” said Haering, adding that tuberculosis is airborne and can spread before the host is symptomatic. “If we compared our population to Sierra Leone’s and took their tuberculosis rate and applied it to Alexandria, we would have 1,000 cases of tuberculosis every single year.”
Haering added that screening at Dulles Airport has been increased to help catch potential cases. However, Haering also noted that there are a few disadvantages facing the U.S.
“We all know the case fatality rate for someone who gets [Ebola] is 40-70 percent,” said Haering. “And we have a very mobile society, so that we can very likely have more cases in the United States that are imported.”
Mayor William Euille also read from an Ebola fact sheet to make sure everyone knew that the virus cannot be spread through air, food, or water. The virus can only be spread through touching the blood or body fluids of someone who was sick with or has died from Ebola or touching infected objects or animals.
“We’re not trying to stir fear, we’re trying to educate,” said Euille. “We want folks to be preventive and cautious, but comforted in knowing that government is working, and that we’re ready, willing and able to be responsive.”
But as fears of a domestic outbreak heighten, some secondary social problems have emerged.
“Folks are beginning to become fearful of other folks that come from the continent of Africa. That should not be. That is the wrong attitude to take,” said Euille, “we’re not at that stage.”
Haering said that there are steps local residents can take to reduce the personal threat of Ebola and other more common viruses: wash their hands, cough and sneeze into their elbow, stay home if sick, call into the doctor before going to hospital, and get flu shots.