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Don't panic over Ebola, local health officials say

The risk of the Ebola virus spreading to the Rogue Valley is very, very small, Jackson County health officials said at a press conference Thursday.

A Dallas, Texas, hospital's announcement that a nurse who had treated a Liberian Ebola patient had herself contracted the disease, which has a mortality rate of roughly 50 percent, sparked fears of an outbreak nationwide. News that a second infected health worker flew aboard a commercial airliner to Cleveland Monday fanned those fears even further. The woman has since been isolated, according news reports.

But county health officer Dr. Jim Shames said the virus, which is believed to have resulted in more than 4,000 deaths in West Africa over the past year, can be transmitted only under specific conditions.

"It's not airborne," Shames said. "You do not transmit it from one person to another until you yourself are sick."

The average time from exposure to becoming symptomatic is two to 21 days, but most will become symptomatic within 10 days, officials said. 

Ebola causes massive fluid loss from bleeding and diarrhea, and the virus uses those fluids as a transmission medium. "Sometimes you can get on top of the problem, and sometimes you can't," Shames said.

Because transmission of the virus requires direct contact with an infected person's fluids, those at high risk of contracting it are limited to family members and health care workers, he said. Following prevention guidelines can dramatically reduce that risk.

Shames pointed to the 2008 case of an American woman who contracted Marburg hemorrhagic fever — a disease very similar to Ebola — as a situation where personal protective equipment, properly worn, prevented any transmission to health care workers.

There aren't any direct flights from the affected areas of West Africa to the Rogue Valley, and major international ports of entry in Seattle and Portland are already stepping up their screening efforts.

"There's been a fair amount of scrutiny that has been put in place because people are concerned," he said.

Tanya Phillips, the county's health promotion manager, said that in the event a case of Ebola was identified in the area, county health officials would notify the state and immediately begin tracing the patient's recent contacts.

They would also pursue quarantine orders if necessary.

"So, when is all hell going to break loose?" KOBI reporter Travis Koch jokingly asked.

With a weariness shared by health officials nationwide, Shames sighed. "It's not."

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.