Two experts assess the threat and what to expect from an experimental vaccine

By Tara Fowler
Updated September 18, 2014 02:00 PM
James Giahyue/Reuters/Landov

As the Ebola virus continues to spread through West Africa, the possibility that the disease could reach the U.S. is growing.

Dr. Kent Brantly, one of the American survivors of Ebola, testified before Congress on Tuesday, stressing the importance of stopping the outbreak in its tracks.

“We can’t afford to wait months, or even weeks, to take action, to put people on the ground,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, President Obama declared a “major increase” in America’s response to the deadly outbreak in West Africa, CNN reports.

“Men and women and children are just sitting, waiting to die right now,” Obama said.

He added: “This is a daunting task, but here’s what gives us hope. The world knows how to fight this disease. It’s not a mystery.

“We know the science. We know how to prevent it from spreading. We know how to care for those who contract it. We know that if we take the proper steps, we can save lives. But we have to act fast.”

To date, the virus has killed at least 2,400 people, and cases are growing exponentially, with 5,000 people infected, according to the World Health Organization.

While the disease has not yet spread outside Africa, officials say it’s only a matter of time with an outbreak of this caliber.

PEOPLE spoke to experts at the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health to get their perspective on the threat of Ebola to Americans.

What are the chances the Ebola virus will reach the U.S.?
Researchers say the chance of seeing an imported case in the U.S. is as high as 18 percent by the end of September (it was less than 5 percent at the start of the month). Restricting air travel “generates only a three- to four-week delay in the international spreading,” according to a study published this month in PLOS Currents: Outbreaks.

How likely am I to contract Ebola?
Not very. Even if an imported case does make it to the U.S., it’s unlikely it will spread through the general population. Basically, the only way for an average American to contract the disease is to visit one of the afflicted countries in Africa.

“It’s healthcare providers caring for Ebola patients and the family and friends in close contact with Ebola patients that are at the highest risk of getting sick,” says Kristen Nordlund, health communications specialist at the CDC. “They may come in contact with the blood or body fluids of sick patients, which is how the disease is spread.”

“The chances of an average American who hasn’t visited Africa getting Ebola are so vanishingly small, it’s almost non-quantitative,” adds Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

He illustrates a worst-case scenario: “A person could walk into an ER and not tell them he just got off a plane from West Africa, which would alert people to quarantine him. Let’s say they didn’t and a nurse and a doctor got infected. That small cluster would be contained almost immediately.”

I’m flying to Africa next week. Are there any travel restrictions in place?
The CDC currently recommends that travelers avoid going to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone unless such travel is absolutely essential. There is also an alert in place for Nigeria urging travelers to “take enhanced precautions,” says Nordlund.

And what are “enhanced precautions”? The CDC recommends avoiding wild animals or raw or undercooked meat; avoiding the body fluids of people who have contracted the illness; and avoiding any burial rites that involve handling the body of someone who died from Ebola.

What is the best way to prevent myself from getting Ebola?
In addition to following the precautions mentioned above, you should make sure to practice good hygiene by washing your hands with soap and water and using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Adds Nordlund: “Seek medical care immediately if you develop fever, headache, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain or unexplained bruising or bleeding. Limit your contact with other people when you go to the doctor. Do not travel anywhere else.”

Is there a treatment for Ebola?
There is a small human trial for a vaccine being carried out at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, right now. Ten volunteers have been given a dose of an experimental vaccine and “thus far there have been no red flags,” said Fauci.

This is merely Phase I of the trial, which tests to see that the vaccine is safe and that it works in humans. The first phase should be completed by November or December, at which point the vaccine will go into wider human trials.

While the vaccine looked promising in animals, Fauci cautions that doesn’t mean it will be a viable treatment in humans. “We have many, many vaccines that look good in an animal model, and then when they get to a human, they just don’t work,” he says. “At this stage of development, it’s impossible to say how promising it’s going to be. Right now it looks like it’s safe. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work.”

One Man’s Ebola Diary

Want more stories like this?

Sign up for our newsletter and other special offers:

Thank you for signing up!