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CDC Announces First Case Of Ebola Diagnosed In U.S.


The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced the first case of Ebola diagnosed within the United States. The man traveled from Liberia and fell ill in Dallas. He's now in strict isolation at a hospital in that city. As a precaution, health officials are tracking down people who came in contact with him. Joining us is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. And, Richard, first of all, what more do we know about the man who's sick?

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: We don't know a whole lot, Robert, but we do know that he was returning to Texas after having visited Liberia. He arrived here on September 20 in Texas. He was feeling fine then. On the 24, he got ill and started feeling symptoms. And symptoms of Ebola could be a sudden fever or fatigue or headaches or all of the above. He went to get medical treatment on the 26 of September and was not admitted to the hospital at that time. But he ultimately was admitted on Sunday to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

SIEGEL: What's the risk that this man might have spread Ebola to other people here in the United States?

HARRIS: Well, it's important to say that Ebola does not spread easily. It does not travel through the air but people can get it through direct contact with bodily fluids. And it's also important to notice that it doesn't spread until a person is actually showing symptoms. So since this man was healthy when he was traveling, it's highly unlikely anyone got exposed to Ebola during his travels. People at the greatest risk here, and anywhere in the world, are healthcare workers, who may, and in particular here, those who may have treated him when he showed up in the hospital but before they realized that he had Ebola and before they had all of their protective systems in place.

SIEGEL: So how long will health officials monitor those people?

HARRIS: Well, most people exposed to Ebola will get sick in about a week. It can happen in as quickly as two days or up to three weeks. So what health officials will do, just as a precaution, will follow all of his contacts while he was sick for 21 days. At that point, if they're not sick they're considered no longer to be at risk. And so that is wrapped up.

SIEGEL: Richard, worst-case, could this case trigger an epidemic of Ebola in the U.S.?

HARRIS: Officials say absolutely not. In fact, Tom Frieden, who's the head of the CDC, says, quote, "there is no doubt in my mind we will stop at here." He says it's possible it might spread to one or two other people but, basically, the health systems in this country are set up very particularly to be aware of this sort of stuff and to nip it in the bud. So that seems to be a very low risk of happening.

SIEGEL: Now, other people have been treated for Ebola in U.S. hospitals since the current outbreak. They came here. We knew they had Ebola. What's the difference here?

HARRIS: Yeah, that is the difference. They were diagnosed in West Africa. And so we knew before they got on a plane that they were sick. And so they were brought in very special equipment. They were maintained in strict medical isolation in flight and in ambulance at the hospital. They were put in the hospital. And so there was a very elaborate infection control for those people. Here, this man was out and about so, you know, for a number of days after he was feeling sick so we don't know. You know, normally people who are sick with Ebola aren't well enough to go strolling or to the grocery store or anything. So that kind of risk is low but he could've exposed people in his household or doctors and nurses who had seen him.

SIEGEL: What's the prognosis for him, for the patient?

HARRIS: Well, in West Africa, more than half of patients with Ebola die. Here, with good medical treatment, you can do considerably better than that. There's no proven drug to treat Ebola but if you get fluids, oxygen, you know, treatment for other infections and so on. And it can really help reduce your risk of death. But it's still a very dangerous disease is and this person is going to have a battle.

SIEGEL: Most of the Ebola cases in Africa have occurred in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, but there have been, I believe, 20 cases in Nigeria. How does the situation in the U.S. compare with, say, that smaller outbreak in Nigeria?

HARRIS: Yeah, that's a good analogy. And in Nigeria there were 20 days, there were 8 deaths. Almost all of them, five of them, were healthcare workers. And through very careful contact tracing they were able to bring that under control, so it was much more difficult circumstances. It should be considerably easier here.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Richard. It's NPR's Richard Harris on the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.