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U.S. to redirect travelers from Uganda to five airports for Ebola screening

There are no known cases here and the government believes the risk to the public is low.

Doctors walk inside the Ebola isolation section of Mubende Regional Referral Hospital, in Mubende, Uganda, last week. (AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda)

The United States will immediately begin redirecting travelers from Uganda to five U.S. airports to screen them for the Ebola virus and will follow up with them while they are in the country, a senior administration official said Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will conduct a temperature check and risk assessment on anyone who has been in Uganda over the previous 21 days, the incubation time of the deadly Ebola virus, the official said. State and local public health officials will follow up with them for 21 days after their arrival, the official said.

The airports are: JFK International Airport in New York, Washington Dulles International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Most of the 145 people who arrive from Uganda each day already land at those airports. There are no direct flights from Uganda, where the outbreak began last month, to the United States.

Ebola Virus Disease is a rare and often deadly hemorrhagic illness that causes fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, loss of appetite and gastrointestinal symptoms as well as unexplained bleeding. Unlike covid-19, the virus is not transmitted through airborne droplets, but is highly contagious. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, including blood, urine, feces, saliva or other secretions of a person who has symptoms or has died of the disease; infected animals or contaminated objects such as needles, according to the CDC.

There are no known cases in the United States, and the government believes the risk to the public here is low, according to the official. But the CDC told clinicians to be on the lookout for people with symptoms and to take a travel history from any patient who shows them.

Uganda is conducting exit screening for the virus, and other African countries in the region are also checking arrivals for symptoms of the virus.

Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, agreed that the risk to the U.S. public is low and endorsed the government’s move to take preemptive measures.

“This is about putting solid surveillance practices in place,” she said. While the virus’s lengthy incubation period may make temperature checks minimally effective, she said, keeping tabs on anyone who has been to Uganda is a smart move.

Katz said the recent pandemic will probably temper the reaction to the Ebola news among some, but not all, of the public. “People are aware of infectious diseases. There is now a literacy around understanding the different types of transmission,” she said.

No cases of the new Sudan strain of the Ebola virus have been reported outside Uganda, where 44 confirmed cases, 10 confirmed deaths, and 20 probable deaths from the virus have been identified since the outbreak began in September, according to the CDC. This is the fifth outbreak of the Sudan strain of the virus in Uganda since 2000, the health agency said.

On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra spoke with Ugandan Health Minister Jane Aceng Ocero and pledged to continue U.S. support for Ugandan efforts against the virus, according to an HHS spokeswoman.

There is a vaccine for the Zaire strain of the virus, which caused two large outbreaks in Africa — in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2018 to 2020 — that sickened tens of thousands of people. But a vaccine for the Sudan strain that is being developed has not yet been widely tested, and there are no treatments for the disease.

During the 2014 to 2016 epidemic that swept Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, 11 people were treated for Ebola in the United States, two of whom died, despite similar airport screenings. Nine of those cases were brought into the country and two others were health care workers infected while caring for a man who arrived with the disease. Both workers recovered.

correction

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Uganda Health Minister Jane Aceng Ocero. The article is corrected.

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