Thanks to air travel, theseparation of continents bythousands of miles of oceanno longer provides a secure bufferagainst the spread of communicablediseases from far-flung places.

Passengers from Africa, Asia, orSouth America who are infectedwith highly virulent bacteria orviruses can arrive in the heart ofa bustling American city in lessthan a day. Given the numbers ofpeople traveling between countries, the international dispersalof potentially lethal pathogens seems inevitable.One of those pathogens could be Ebola virus, which kills up to90% of people infected with it. 

The World Health Organization(WHO) recently declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa(namely Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria) a globalemergency. According to WHO, confirmed, probable, or suspectedEbola disease has been documented in 2,240 individualsas of August 16, and 1,229 have died from it.The U.S. has no guaranteed immunity from an Ebola outbreak,even though we may have an edge in containing the virus comparedwith the nations now beset by a severe Ebola outbreak. 

Complacency here could set the stage for an outbreak. A patientsickened with the virus could seek care in an emergency department,where medical staff might not immediately suspect Ebolainfection and the usual precautions taken to prevent pathogentransmission may not be enough. 

Paramedics could respond toa 911 call for somebody who collapsed, bleeding, on a city streetand never give a thought to the possibility of Ebola.Complacency is understandable. Many exotic diseases areendemic to distant countries afflicted by poverty and squalidliving conditions. 

Additionally, we trust that our modern medicaland public health infrastructure would rapidly contain thespread of a contagious disease before a major outbreak results. 

Travel-related dispersal of potentially deadly infectious diseasesacross great distances is not new. Europeans traveling byship brought smallpox to the New World in the late 1400s andearly 1500s, and it decimated the susceptible Native Americanpopulations. In those days, a ship’s journey from Europe to theNew World took a few months. 

Now, millions of people traverseoceans in travel times measured in hours, crisscrossing the globerelatively quickly by jet as they make countless visits to variousdestinations. Under the right set of circumstances, it wouldtake just one of these individuals to be infectious with Ebola orsomething just as bad—or worse—to start an outbreak. 

Medicalpersonnel, especially those on the front lines, must be vigilant.