When Nancy Writebol touches down on American soil Tuesday to be treated for Ebola, her ambulance ride from Dobbins Air Force Base through Atlanta to Emory should be uneventful, experts say.
“A lot of the hysteria is like when HIV was discovered,” said Michael Powell, an expert on infectious diseases who specialized in HIV research. “It is better to be safe than sorry. But I think the concerns that something will happen should be minimal.”
Writebol, a North Carolina-based missionary, was infected with Ebola while working in Liberia. She will be the second American stricken with the disease to be treated at Emory University Hospital.
On Saturday, Dr. Kent Brantly arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base aboard an air ambulance. Escorted by police cars, an ambulance transported him to Emory. The ambulance did not use lights or sirens.
Emory officials on Monday would not comment on when Writebol is scheduled to arrive, nor go into details surrounding her transport from the base to the hospital.
But if it mirrors Brantly’s transport, she will be carried in an ambulance specifically fitted with absorbent drapes covering the shelves on the walls to catch any fluids. Everyone in the ambulance will be wearing specialized Tyvek suits. The ambulance driver’s compartment will be pressurized so air from the patient’s compartment won’t come in.
Powell, who teaches at the Morehouse School of Medicine, said it would be naive to assume there would be zero chance of an accident, but added that even an accident would pose little risk of the Ebola virus spreading.
While deadly and unfamiliar in America, Ebola is not transmitted through the air. Instead, the disease — which is a type of hemorrhagic fever — spreads as HIV does, through the passing of bodily fluids.
“The worst case scenario would be to have an accident and to have the patient bleeding and for someone to come in contact with the blood,” Powell said. “So the chances of it spreading are pretty remote.”
But that doesn’t mean anyone will be cavalier in dealing with Ebola, he said. “The one thing you learn when dealing viruses is to be respectful.”
Amesh A. Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that while Ebola is “ferocious and mysterious, it doesn’t pose a risk to the general public, and the patients don’t pose a problem.
“If you were sitting on the bus, I would be more worried about an unvaccinated person with measles, because that is transmitted through the air. Ebola is not very contagious on that scale,” Adalja said.
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