Air Travel from Nigeria Most Likely Path for Ebola to Reach US

Whether or not Ebola ever actually reaches the United States, the fear of contagion will soon cause major economic and lifestyle changes for Americans.

After killing almost 1,000 people in the isolated tri-border region of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the Ebola disease officially broke out of containment with the announcement of six cases in Nigeria and one death in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Center for Disease Control responded by raising the outbreak to its highest level of a Stage 1 pandemic alert. As Africa’s most populous nation with 180 million residents, over a million passengers per month take commercial flights from Nigeria airports, and about 15,000 of those travelers fly directly to the U.S. This will, no doubt, impact Americans' way of life.

Nigeria’s health minister declared on August 6th that “Ebola is now a national emergency” after five more cases were confirmed in Nigeria on Wednesday and a second person has died from the disease. 

The Nigerian announcement, coupled with disclosure that a man who was being treated for Ebola-like symptoms after visiting Sierra Leone had died at a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, set off alarm bells that a pandemic was spreading outside of Africa. 

As the largest nation in Africa and a major oil exporter, about 3,200 passengers per week fly from Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos directly to the United States, according to the American Embassy in Nigeria. Delta, United, and Arik Air operate non-stop flights to New York’s JFK; Delta flies directly to Washington Dulles; and Continental has direct service to Houston Intercontinental. Many of these travelers are business professionals who fly back and forth to Nigeria, but over 80,000 Nigerians were expected to visit the United States this year.

As a major oil producer, Nigeria has been one of the largest exporters of crude oil to the United States. Over the last decade, the U.S. imported an average of one million barrels of oil per day to U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast and New Jersey. But lately, the level has dropped to 100,000 per day.

The worst pandemic in the history of the world was the Spanish Flu from 1918-1919. It infected about 500 million people, a third of the world’s population, but only killed about 40 million or eight percent. It is estimated that 675,000 Americans died of Spanish Flu.  

There have been 26 outbreaks of Ebola and about 1,800 deaths since 1976. But the current pandemic has caused more than half the deaths from Ebola, is much more fatal than prior outbreaks, and is still accelerating. The only cases that originated in the U.S. were four Americans in 1990 who became infected by monkeys in quarantine facilities in Virginia and Texas. The researchers developed antibodies but did not get sick.

The United Nations World Health Organization has convened a two-day “emergency committee” meeting in Geneva to determine whether the current Ebola viral outbreak in West Africa is an international public health emergency. If it becomes so, the spokesman said in response to a question, “then the committee would recommend to the Director-General of WHO to declare it a public health emergency of international concern and recommend appropriate temporary measures to reduce international spread” of the virus. Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security, will hold a press conference to announce their determination at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, August 8th.

Those recommendations will probably follow Mayo Clinic’s suggested precautions to avoid being infected with Ebola: 1) Avoid areas of known outbreaks; 2) Wash hands frequently with soap or 60% alcohol; 3) Avoid wild bush meat; 4) Avoid contact with infected people and caregivers; 5) Wear protective clothing; and 6) Don't handle remains.

The Ebola pandemic may or may not reach the United States, but the fear and rumors about contagion will soon cause a significant drop in air travel, mall shopping, and large public event attendance. Ebola misinformation is already starting to run rampant. But if Ebola reaches the U.S., we may all be wearing protective clothing.

The author will respond to comments by readers.


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