First Ebola case diagnosed in US; fears others may have been exposed

Federal health officials say patient being treated at Dallas hospital has tested positive for the killer disease

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where a patient showing symptoms of the Ebola virus is being treated, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014.
LM Otero / AP

A patient being treated at a Dallas hospital has tested positive for Ebola, the first case of the disease to be diagnosed in the United States, federal health officials announced Tuesday.

Officials at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital say the unidentified patient is being kept in isolation and that the hospital is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to keep doctors, staff and patients safe.

The hospital had announced a day earlier that the patient's symptoms and recent travel suggested Ebola. An outbreak of the killer virus has killed more than 3,000 people across West Africa and infected a handful of Americans who have traveled to that region.

Dr. Edward Goodman, an epidemiologist at the hospital, said Tuesday that the hospital had been prepared for a potential Ebola patient and had a "plan for some time now." The Dallas hospital has a "robust infectious control system" that works closely with the CDC and other epidemiologists, he said at a press conference late Tuesday afternoon.

The patient had initially gone to the hospital on Friday, but was sent home with antibiotics. Officials said Tuesday that an investigation wass underway to establish whether medical officals acted appropriately on that occasion.

The CDC has said 12 other people in the U.S. have been tested for Ebola since July 27. But those tests came back negative.

Dallas-Fort Worth Airport has no direct flights to and from Africa, so it is believed that the patient would have had to make a connection elsewhere, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It raises concern that others may have been infected as a result of exposure to the man or woman who is currently in isolation in Dallas.

The next steps for the current Dallas patient will be to "maximize his chances of recovery" and to identify all those who may have had contact with the patient while he was infectious, according to Dr. David Lakey, Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

He emphasized that Ebola cannot spread from someone who does not present symptoms, even if the victim develops Ebola later on.

"I have no doubt that we will control this case of Ebola so that it does not spread within this country," said Lakey during the press conference. 

According to the CDC, Ebola symptoms can include fever, muscle pain, vomiting and bleeding, and can appear as long as 21 days after exposure to the virus.

Word of the infection alarmed the Dallas-Fort Worth Liberian community.

"People have been calling, trying to find out if anybody knows the family," said Stanley Gaye, president of the Liberian Community Association of DFW. "We've been telling people to try to stay away from social gatherings."

Four American aid workers who had become infected while volunteering in West Africa have been treated in special facilities in hospitals in Atlanta and Nebraska, and a U.S. doctor exposed to the virus in Sierra Leone is under observation in a similar facility at the National Institutes of Health.

The U.S. has only four such isolation units but the CDC has insisted that any hospital can safely care for someone with Ebola.

Jason McDonald, spokesman for the CDC, said health officials use two primary guidelines when deciding whether to test a person for the virus.

"The first and foremost determinant is have they traveled to the region [of West Africa]," he said. The second is whether there's been proximity to family, friends or others who've been exposed, he said.

U.S. health officials have been preparing since summer in case an individual traveler arrived here unknowingly infected, telling hospitals what infection-control steps to take to prevent the virus from spreading in health facilities. People boarding planes in the outbreak zone are checked for fever, but symptoms can begin up to 21 days after exposure.

Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, updated President Barack Obama this afternoon on the Ebola case, according to the White House. They discussed the stringent isolation protocols in place as well as ongoing efforts to trace the patient’s contacts.

Frieden said there was no risk to anyone on the airplane because the patient had no symptoms at the time of the flight.

"The bottom line here is that I have no doubt we will control this importation, or this case of Ebola, so that it does not spread widely in this country," Frieden told a news conference.

"It is certainly possible that someone who had contact with this individual, a family member or other individual, could develop Ebola in the coming weeks," he added. "But there is no doubt in my mind that we will stop it here." 

Asked how many people the patient may have had close contact with in that time period, Frieden said, "I think a handful is the right characterization."

Frieden would not reveal the patient's nationality.

The WHO said earlier this week the number of infections could reach 20,000 by November, months earlier than it previously predicted. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that up to 1.4 million people might be infected in the region by January if efforts to contain the disease are not increased.

People boarding planes in the outbreak zone are checked for fever, but that does not guarantee that an infected person won't get through. Liberia is one of the three hardest-hit countries in the epidemic, along with Sierra Leone and Guinea. The epidemic has killed more than 3,000 people in West Africa.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.

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