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Posted on Sat. Aug. 09, 2014 - 12:30 am EDT

County health official counsels travelers to be vigilant on Ebola

At a glance

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola virus an international public health emergency. Here are some facts:

What is Ebola?

Ebola virus is the cause of a viral hemorrhagic fever disease. Symptoms include: fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, lack of appetite, and abnormal bleeding. Symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure to Ebola virus, though eight to 10 days is most common.

How is Ebola transmitted?

Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected symptomatic person or through exposure to objects (such as needles) that have been contaminated with infected secretions.

Can Ebola be transmitted through the air?

No. Ebola is not a respiratory disease like the flu, so it is not transmitted through the air.

Can I get Ebola from contaminated food or water?

No. Ebola is not a food-borne illness. It is not a water-borne illness.

Can I get Ebola from a person who is infected but doesn’t have any symptoms?

No. Individuals who are not symptomatic are not contagious. In order for the virus to be transmitted, an individual would have to have direct contact with an individual who is experiencing symptoms.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There hasn’t been a single case of someone contracting the Ebola virus in the United States.

That, of course, doesn’t mean much in a global society, says Dr. Deborah McMahan, health commissioner for Allen County.

“People travel so much today,” she said. “It would be foolish to think of it as ‘their’ problem. With global travel, you never know if Indiana or Fort Wayne” could have an outbreak.

On Friday, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be an international public health emergency that requires an extraordinary response to stop its spread.

It is the largest and longest outbreak ever recorded of Ebola, which has a death rate of about 50 percent and has so far killed at least 932 people.

WHO declared similar emergencies for the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and for polio in May.

As for Ebola, McMahan advises residents who plan to travel abroad to use common sense, such as visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. The site has up-to-date listings on countries at risk of infectious viruses and the like.

Travelers should pay attention to the travel notices of various countries and never downplay an illness.

“You should always take the proper precautions and be aware,” McMahan said. “The mistake some people make is if they get a fever or feel sick they don’t think it came from a country they visited because it may have been six months since they were there.”

In such instances, McMahan said it is crucial for patients to inform their doctor.

“Let them know where you’ve been,” she said. “That way, they can start narrowing down what’s wrong with you.”

Lutheran Health spokesman Geoff Thomas said the hospital system stands ready, but relies much on federal, state and local medical officials for current information.

“We continuously adapt infection prevention and control policies and practice to reflect the most current guidance from organizations such as the local and state health departments and the CDC,” he said in an email.

“These efforts include implementing isolation recommendations for emerging infectious disease threats. It’s a fairly consistent repose regardless of the specific condition and local hospitals are equipped and trained to meet these unique needs,” Thomas said.

Thomas isn’t minimizing the Ebola outbreak but said residents should keep in mind health care facilities in countries like the U.S. have much greater access to “personal protective equipment (gloves, gowns, masks) and isolation areas than facilities in developing nations.”

Parkview Health officials were unavailable for comment.

WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan said Friday’s announcement is “a clear call for international solidarity” although she acknowledged that many countries would probably not have any Ebola cases.

“Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own,” Chan said at a news conference in Geneva. “I urge the international community to provide this support on the most urgent basis possible.”

The agency had convened an expert committee this week to assess the severity of the continuing epidemic.

The current outbreak of Ebola began in Guinea in March and has since spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia, with a suspected cluster in Nigeria. There is no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola.

The impact of the WHO declaration is unclear.

“Statements won’t save lives,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. “For weeks, (we) have been repeating that a massive medical, epidemiological and public health response is desperately needed. … Lives are being lost because the response is too slow.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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