The news out of Africa can seem terrifying: The biggest outbreak of Ebola ever recorded started in Guinea in March and has since moved to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. And now it’s arrived in the United States with the medical evacuation of a doctor and a missionary who are being treated in a contained treatment facility in Atlanta. If you’re planning to travel—to Africa, Atlanta, or anywhere else—you must be asking yourself: Should Ebola affect my travel plans?
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta is encouraging travelers to defer unnecessary trips to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, there is no need to cancel other trips because of Ebola. But it always pays to be proactive and prepared. No matter when or where you are traveling.
Countries Trying to Keep Disease Out
Some airports already have procedures in place in an attempt to prevent the spread of communicable diseases by air. Frequent Flyer TravelingMom Leslie Harvey recently visited Hong Kong, and witnessed first-hand how the Hong Kong airport deploys infrared forehead scanning devices to check arriving passengers for fevers. A scanning device is pointed at a passenger’s forehead and gives a reading in mere seconds.
Temperature screening was put in place in some Chinese airports during the 2003 outbreak of SARS, a respiratory illness transmitted when a person coughs or sneezes.
Some experts, however, question the accuracy of the thermal screening devices and whether their use results in too many false positives to be worthwhile screening tools. Others question whether temperature screening is effective at all, given that many passengers can be disease carriers before showing symptoms like a fever.
In the case of Ebola, symptoms, including a fever, generally don’t appear until more than a week after exposure to the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Ebola in Atlanta
Atlanta’s medical community has taken center stage in the international Ebola crisis, but Family Fun TravelingMom Desiree Miller, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, says that is no reason to think it’s risky to travel to that southern city.
“Atlanta is safe…for residents and travelers alike,” she says.
The two Americans infected with Ebola being treated in Atlanta were flown there from Africa on special flights, in a way that wouldn’t infect others. They’re being treated at Emory University Hospital in high containment areas. The Atlanta-based CDC, America’s premier public health agency, is actively involved.
Miller admits that Atlanta residents are concerned about their own safety, and it’s understandable that others might want to avoid the area “just in case.”
But Dana Barr, former employee of the CDC and an infectious disease expert who current works at Emory University, offers some reassurance: “Emory is well equipped to handle Ebola patients. The patients are being flown (individually) in an isolated pod which ensures the doctors can handle vital signs, deliver medicines, etc., from outside the pod. They are being admitted to a high containment area of Emory which doesn’t just mean an isolated room, but an area highly contained like a pod or a BS4 level lab.”
And, she adds, Emory has practiced this process many times. It is one of just a handful of hospitals in the world equipped to treat Ebola patients.
How Ebola Spreads
A key thing to keep in mind if fear of Ebola is affecting your travel plans: Unlike SARS and other highly contagious viruses that can be spread through the air, Ebola can spread only by direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person or direct contact with objects, such as needles or protective clothing, that have been contaminated with those secretions and not adequately disinfected.
So it’s possible to travel anywhere, including to Africa. Marathon TravelingMom Lorraine Robertson recently spent a week on safari in Kenya and says it’s perfectly safe to visit there, provided you take some precautions, listen to instructions and follow the rules.
And, Luxury TravelingMom Kim-Marie Evans, who took her 9-year-old son to Rwanda without qualms, offers these recommendations for travel to Africa:
1. Get all the shots suggested, but don’t freak out
We get all of our international travel shots done at Passport Health; you can also have them done at your pediatrician. The chances of getting typhoid fever, or any other serious illness are extremely small. Don’t let the first step on your trip, getting medically prepared, scare you. Keep their shot records, some shots only need to be repeated every 5-10 years, some every 2. Some countries require proof of vaccination for entry.
2. Travel with Benadryl, the location of the nearest hospital and medical insurance
You can’t always anticipate what you or your children will be allergic to. It took a scary night in Haiti of caring for my daughter after a severe jellyfish sting to make me realize I will never leave the house without Benadryl again. We didn’t know she was allergic, until she was stung. Also, make sure you know where the nearest medical facility is, you won’t need it, but you’ll feel better knowing.
3. Get medical evacuation insurance and take a copy of the policy and the 800 number with you, and leave another at home with a responsible adult.
I have purchased policies from Travel Guard; blessedly I’ve never had to use them. For two week trips to Rwanda and Haiti they cost around $33 each. They no longer sell annual policies for medivac. You will get an 800 number and if anything happens you have an advocate who can guide you through the process of getting to the nearest medical facility and get you to the hospital of your choice abroad if you should need it.