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Health Officials Trace Travels Of First Ebola Patient In U.S.


The discovery of a man with Ebola who'd recently flown to the United States brings with it a reminder - airlines are, among other things, a line of defense against spreading disease. Health officials are tracing this man's travels. He was infected in Liberia but did not develop symptoms until about four days after arriving in Dallas. So it does not appear airlines could've done anything about this, but his case raises questions about how prepared U.S. airports and airlines are. NPR's David Schaper has some answers.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The man infected with Ebola began a long two-day journey to the U.S. on September 19. He flew on three planes and went through four airports, including Monrovia, Brussels, Dulles outside of Washington, D.C. and Dallas/Fort Worth. United Airlines says it believes he was a passenger on two of its planes, but officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say other passengers on those flights were never at risk. Doctor Thomas Frieden is the director of the CDC.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: Ebola doesn't spread before someone gets sick. And he didn't get sick 'till four days after he got off the airplane. So we do not believe there is any risk to anyone who was on the flight at that time.

SCHAPER: But how exactly do health officials know the man wasn't sick before he boarded that flight in Monrovia? Frieden explains.

FRIEDEN: One of the things that CDC has done in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Lagos is to work with the airport's authorities. So 100 percent of the individuals getting on planes are screened for fever before they get on the plane. And if they have a fever, they're pulled out of the line, assessed for Ebola and don't fly unless Ebola is ruled out.

SCHAPER: Airport personnel in those West African nations are trained by the CDC and the World Health Organization to look for signs of illness in travelers and question them about their health and whether they've been exposed to Ebola. And CDC spokeswoman Christine Pearson says they're also taking temperatures.

CHRISTINE PEARSON: They do have what we call non-contact thermometers, which are infrared thermometers that they can read the person's temperature with their forehead.

SCHAPER: Some question how thorough those airport personnel in West Africa really are at screening travelers. But if a sick passenger were to slip through, airlines already have the legal right to deny boarding to anyone with a serious communicable disease. If a passenger should become sick during flight, flight attendants and other airline-personnel have the training to deal with that, too. Perry Flint is a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.

PERRY FLINT: Airlines have well-established procedures, guidance materials developed with the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization for maintenance crew, for cabin crew, for cleaning crew in terms of dealing with an outbreak.

SCHAPER: And Flint notes that airlines worldwide have quite an bit of experience at handling such public health concerns.

FLINT: If we go back a few years, we had SARS, we had the Avian flu. There is also right now the MERS going around. So this is not something that's new for airlines, although Ebola itself obviously is fairly new to be dealing with.

SCHAPER: Once international travelers land in the U.S., Customs and Border Protection officers, who have also received special Ebola training, are the next line of defense.

JENNIFER EVANITSKY: CBP personnel review all travelers entering the United States for general overt signs of illnesses. It's through a visual observation at all U.S. ports of entry, including all U.S. airports that service international flights.

SCHAPER: That's CBP spokeswoman Jennifer Evanitsky, who also says travelers who have been in West Africa are handed fact sheets about Ebola symptoms and what to do if they later become ill. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.