WTOP Town Hall on Ebola airs public concerns

WASHINGTON — A town hall sponsored by WTOP on Monday morning featured three top experts in infectious diseases who said Americans should be aware, prepared and informed, but not panicked, over the presence of Ebola in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes for Health, joined Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene for the state of Maryland, and Dr. Jesse Goodman, professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, who is also former chief scientist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, on the dais.

The town hall was moderated by WTOP anchors Bruce Alan and Debra Feinstein.

The three were asked questions ranging from improving safety protocols for health care workers who are handling Ebola patients or Ebola-exposed patients here in the U.S., to whether the virus is mutating, and the difference between airborne virus transmission versus aerosol transmission.

On the issue of mutation, Fauci said it was “highly unlikely but not impossible” that Ebola could transform into an airborne virus, which would mean it could travel within very fine air particles and get into the lungs. That, disease experts agree, would be a “nightmare scenario.”

In general, the response to Ebola has been mixed in the U.S., the men agreed. Since 9/11, first responders have been mobilized for public health emergencies, but there are clearly gaps, such as those experienced in Dallas in connection with Thomas Eric Duncan, who was visiting from Liberia and died from Ebola early October, showing there is much more to be done. New guidelines for health care workers handling Ebola patients should be released within the day, said Fauci.

He would not elaborate on the new measures.

On the issue of a proposed travel ban, the doctors appeared to agree that travelers from countries experiencing outbreaks should be tracked, but that travel bans might encourage people to sneak into the country, making it more difficult to monitor them.

The issue of vaccines also played a big role. On why there isn’t a vaccine already, Goodman said things were on track, but the process must be careful. The experimental drug ZMapp was given to outbreak patients, and has even been credited for saving lives, but it has not been tested yet in clinical trials.

“There is a tremendous public-private effort to rush vaccines forward and it is really unprecedented,” said Goodman, “but it is important to make sure that whatever goes forward, to know it is safe and to know it actually works.”

When asked about Ebola patient Nina Pham, who was transferred from Dallas to NIH last week, Fauci said she is stable and comfortable but a bit “knocked out” from the virus. But he had a long conversation with her and she is “in good spirits.”

“I don’t speculate,” he said when asked further if she would fully recover, but “I but I can say I fully intend to walk out of the hospital with her.”

News arrived Monday morning that the people who came into contact with Duncan had gone through their mandatory 21-day confinement period in Dallas without symptoms of the virus.

“Again it is proof that it is difficult to get it unless you come into contact with the bodily fluids of a sick person,” said Fauci.

“We’re trying to dispel myths that might be panicky. Don’t interpret that for overconfidence, that we have nothing to worry about,” he said. “We need to suppress the epidemic in Africa, and if someone comes in with a suspicion of Ebola with a travel history, isolate them to protect the people around and if they have Ebola … to take care of them in a way that protects society and most of all, protects health workers.”

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