The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that a person has brought the Ebola virus into the United States on a commercial airplane flight. The man, who was not exhibiting symptoms of the virus at the time, landed in Dallas on September 20. He is being treated at a Dallas hospital, and in the meantime the CDC is sending a team to Dallas to try to figure out who else may have been infected.
How big of a deal is this news? That’s not clear — but it certainly would be better if it hadn’t happened. According to the CDC website, Ebola is transmitted by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is infected with the disease, or with the clothing or other items that have come into contact with those substances. The website actually addresses what the CDC would do under these circumstances: “If a traveler is infectious or exhibiting symptoms during or after a flight, CDC will conduct an investigation of exposed travelers and work with the airline, federal partners, and state and local health departments to notify them and take any necessary public health action.” The website doesn’t specify what the “necessary public health action” might be.
For those of us who have to travel as part of their jobs, this news is somewhat unnerving. Airports and airplanes are the great crossroads of the modern world, where your path might intersect for a few seconds with travelers from faraway lands while you wait to board a plane or go through security or get some crappy grub at a fast-food outlet. In a modern airport, you could be sneezed upon by people from just about anywhere, or unknowingly sit in a seat that minutes ago was vacated by a complete stranger whose health condition is absolutely unknown. How many people were transported in the plane that brought the infected man to this country before anyone became aware this issue existed? How do we know where the infected man sat, or whether he used the bathroom?
We’re probably not to the point where people will be traveling in hazmat suits, but don’t be surprised if you see an outbreak of those mouth and nose masks the next time you take a commercial airline flight.