Ebola in America? Don't Worry About It

The real problem is in western Africa.

Health officials have known for weeks that it would happen, and now it has: A case of Ebola has been diagnosed in the U.S. More such cases are to be expected, in others who travel to the U.S. from infected areas in Africa without realizing they've picked up the virus.

Ebola is a horrible sickness that has already killed more than 3,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But a single case in the U.S. is no cause for alarm. U.S. hospitals are capable of handling infectious diseases of every kind, and public-health workers are well equipped to monitor a patient's recent contacts. In other words: In the U.S., it's easy enough to stop Ebola in its tracks.

QuickTake Ebola

This is not the case in the afflicted countries of western Africa. Ebola was able to come to the U.S. because Ebola remains out of control in Liberia. And it is in Liberia and its afflicted neighbors that Americans -- and people everywhere else -- need to focus their concern.

The primary cause of this enormous Ebola outbreak has been inadequate health care. The virus itself is no more transmissible or deadly than it was in any previous outbreak. In Nigeria, for example, health-care workers were able to bring the disease under control relatively quickly. They identified the problem early and got patients into hospitals equipped with protective gear and other critical supplies.

In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, in contrast, health-care systems that were already weak have practically disintegrated in the face of Ebola. Health officials now expect to see many more deaths there from other conditions as well, as people cannot get proper care for malaria, HIV-AIDS or tuberculosis, for example.

Hope is growing that Ebola can be brought under control by mid- to late January, as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention model suggests. The world took its time responding to the crisis, but many countries and organizations are now coming in with money -- more than $550 million -- and hundreds of fresh doctors, nurses and other volunteers. If, in the next three months, 70 percent of Ebola patients can be properly treated and isolated, then the number of new cases can finally start to fall.

It's too soon to count on that happening. But if it does, it's obvious what will be needed next: The foundations must be laid for strong and sturdy health-care systems in western Africa, prepared to quickly put down the next outbreak -- whether Ebola or another infectious disease.

--Editors: Mary Duenwald, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net