A top U.S. health official warned Tuesday that the Ebola virus is "ferocious and spreading exponentially" in Western Africa, but said the U.S. healthcare system should be able to prevent an outbreak in North America.
"It is important to note that we do not view ebola as a significant public health threat to the United States," said Beth Bell, who directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.
A man wearing a t-shirt reading 'Friends, let's stop Ebola together' shows pupils an Ebola prevention poster during a campaign against the Ebola virus in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A top health official said Tuesday that virus is spreading quickly in Africa, but that the U.S. has the capacity to stop an outbreak at home. AFP PHOTO / SIA KAMBOU
"The best way to protect the U.S. is to stop the outbreak in West Africa," she added at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Health Committee. "But it is possible that an infected traveler might arrive in the U.S."
"Should this occur, we are confident that our public health and healthcare systems can prevent any Ebola outbreak here," she concluded.
The Ebola outbreak in Western Africa has led to fears that the virus could mutate and overwhelm any country if just a few travelers are exposed and return home.
Others have raised the alarm that Ebola could mutate into one that allows the virus to spread through the air — right now, Ebola only spreads through direct contact between people. But Anthony Fauci, direction of the National Institutes of Health's allergy and infectious diseases division, downplayed that possibility.
"It's not impossible, but it would be unlikely," he told the Senate committee.
Despite Bell's confidence in the ability of the U.S. to repel and outbreak, Bell admitted that Ebola is spreading quickly and poses a threat to other countries near the epicenter.
"The Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is ferocious and spreading exponentially," she said. "The current outbreak is the first that has been recognized in West Africa, and the biggest and most complex Ebola epidemic ever documented."
She said there were 4,400 cumulative cases of Ebola as of last week, and 2,300 documented deaths, although she admitted there is underreporting of cases and the real numbers might be two to three times higher. She also said officials have seen Ebola spread to Nigeria and Senegal.
"There is an urgent need to help bordering countries to better prepare for cases now, and to strengthen detection and response capabilities throughout Africa," she said.
Bell added that as the virus spreads, it runs the risk of causing other problems, like economic and political instability. "These impacts are intensifying, and not only signal a growing humanitarian crisis, but also have direct impacts on our ability to respond to the Ebola epidemic itself," she said.
She said there is a window for dealing with the virus, but warned "that window is closing."
"If we do not act now to stop Ebola, we could be dealing with it for years to come, effecting larger areas of Africa," she said.
The House this week is expected to pass legislation that would provide millions of dollars in additional funding to help contain Ebola in Africa, and the Obama administration has said it would send 3,000 members of the military to help build facilities and supervise efforts to move medical personnel and equipment in the area.