The possibility that Ebola will spread to the United States is growing dramatically, and the U.S. government reportedly has ordered 160,000 protective suits as the world struggles to contain the outbreak.
With each day, the odds grow that a person unknowingly infected with Ebola will cross the Atlantic and get off a plane in America, and then potentially spread it elsewhere. In fact, one researcher is putting the odds of that happening by the end of September at 18 percent – about one in five. Researcher Alessandro Vespignani of Northeastern University published his work in the journal PLOS Currents: Outbreaks.
It kills more than 50 percent of those it infects.
“What is happening in West Africa is going to get here,” Vespignani told NPR. “We can’t escape that at this point.”
Meanwhile, the number of Ebola cases in West Africa could rise to 277,000 by the end of 2014, a study published in the journal Eurosurveillance claimed. The study’s authors used statistical analysis to predict that there will be tens of thousands of cases of Ebola in Africa by year’s end. Eurosurveilliance is the official peer-reviewed publication of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control – the EU’s equivalent to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To date, 4,200 cases of Ebola have been reported in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leon, and around 2,200 people are believed to have died of the deadly virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that there could be thousands of new cases of Ebola each week by October.
Uncle Sam Preparing for Ebola Outbreak
The federal government is preparing for Ebola’s arrival in America, with the US State Department reportedly taking bids for 160,000 Hazmat suits. The bid was revealed in a press release from Lakeland Industries, a manufacturer of biohazard suits. The release noted that there have been reports of a shortage of Hazmat suits but that it is trying to address the shortage by ramping up production. Lakeland’s suits are already being used by medical teams on the ground in West Africa.
Additionally, President Obama is ordering 3,000 US troops to the African region to help stop the spread.
Ebola Will Soon Reach the United Kingdom
There’s a 25 to 28 percent chance that Ebola will reach the United Kingdom by late September, Vespignani said. Britain has a large population of West African immigrants. Around 6,000 people fly between Britain and Nigeria every week, and they pass through the same airports as travelers heading to the United States and Canada. Several thousand more fly to other European countries and Asia.
Even shutting down 80 percent of the flights between Africa and other areas would only delay Ebola’s arrival by a few weeks, biostatistics expert Ira Longini told NPR. Between 3,000 and 6,000 people a week fly directly from West Africa to the United States, and around 1,000 people fly directly from West Africa to Canada each week.
“Unless you can completely shut down the transportation systems, these kinds of efforts will, at best, buy you a little time,” Longini said. She believes that shutting down air travel would make things worse by making it harder to ship supplies to affected areas.
Spreading Through The Air?
At least one expert in infectious disease — Michael T. Osterholm the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota – is warning Ebola could become airborne. In a New York Times op-ed, Osterholm demanded that the United Nations launch a coordinated military campaign to contain Ebola.
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Osterholm believes military aircraft should be used to move supplies and food to infected areas.
He also thinks there is a strong possibility that Ebola could soon mutate into a form that will spread through the air. The disease currently only spreads from exposure to body fluids.
“If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola,” Osterholm wrote. “Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.”
Osterholm says Ebola is going through a process of hyper-evolution that could make it far more dangerous. He is also afraid that Ebola will spread to a Third World megacity where millions of people live in poverty in slums with no running water or access to medical care.
“What happens when an infected person yet to become ill travels by plane to Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa or Mogadishu — or even Karachi, Jakarta, Mexico City or Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh)?” Osterholm wrote.
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