Our curiosity and fears have been running wild since the 2014 Ebola* outbreak in West Africa hit headlines. Scenes from Outbreak, the 1995 box office hit that focused on a fictional outbreak of an Ebola-like virus in Zaire, begin running through our minds. We need to stray from these dramatizations and focus on the facts. Movies are supposed to build suspense and fear, but real life outbreaks don’t happen like they do in the movies. This isn’t Hollywood.
The most common question on the minds of people around the United States: Are we fighting Ebola well enough to keep it from coming to my community?
The truth with many emerging infectious diseases including Ebola, is that the only way to fight it is to be prepared to respond. In the United States, we’re doing just that.
Although the Ebola-Zaire virus circulating in West Africa has not arrived in the United States, a massive effort is underway to detect and control any isolated cases of the disease should they occur in this country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States Department of Defense (DoD), pharmaceutical companies, public health laboratories and many more are all working domestically and abroad to minimize the potential threat. The DoD has long been studying Ebola virus and successfully developed a test to detect the Zaire strain. On August 5, 2014, the DoD Ebola detection test received emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used in this extreme circumstance. (An EUA expedites the FDA approval process for unapproved medical devices that could benefit response efforts when no adequate alternatives exist.) After the EUA was issued, CDC worked quickly to deploy the test to select public health laboratories across the United States. As the supply of test kits increases, CDC will look to expand the number of laboratories qualified to detect the Ebola-Zaire virus.
The public health laboratories receiving the Ebola detection assay are part of the Laboratory Response Network (LRN), a specialized network of laboratories that are capable of responding to biological, chemical, radiological and other emerging threats. This preparedness and response effort is not unique to Ebola. Most recently, the LRN has been leveraged to respond to emerging infectious diseases like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus. The LRN provides a strong infrastructure of trained personnel, clear communication lines, and advanced technology to launch an effective response to emerging infectious disease.
The race to contain Ebola is on since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) in early August 2014. Moreover, the CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center at the highest response level to help with the outbreak. As Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, said in a press conference this week, “We know how it spreads. We know how to stop it from spreading. The challenge is to do that everywhere that’s needed. In order to do that effectively, speed is key.”
While we all are concerned for the health and safety of the people in the most affected nations, we can find some comfort in knowing that a coordinated effort of qualified scientists, doctors, public health officials and organizations is underway to minimize the threat of outbreak in the US.
*Did you know there are five known strains of Ebola virus? The most dangerous one, Ebola-Zaire, is responsible for the outbreak in West Africa. The virus spreads person to person through direct contact with blood and other bodily fluids; despite what you may have read in fear-mongering articles, the spread of the virus through the air has never been documented. Once inside the host, the virus works by weakening the immune system and starving the host organs to the point of failure.