Virologist Heinz Feldmann, who has studied Ebola for 20 years and is currently working on one of several experimental vaccines for the virus, warned in a September interview that the airport was the place in Monrovia where he felt the most unsafe, and that screening for Ebola at the airport was a “disaster.”
In an interview with Science Magazine in September, Feldmann, who had recently returned from three weeks in Monrovia, explains that the front lines in west Africa against the Ebola virus are by far the most dangerous; those working for organizations like Doctors Without Borders live under the constant threat of contracting the virus. Feldmann notes that he himself did not feel unsafe working in Liberia because his work was academic, and thus enclosed with the virus, rather than the patients:
Patients are like virus factories producing up to a hundred million virus particles per milliliter of blood, and a patient is unpredictable; a patient could cough, could spit at you, vomit on you, or even become aggressive and attack you. So these people really have the highest risk and have the highest burden.
Feldmann confesses that the place at which he felt the least safe was the airport, calling it the place of “highest risk.” For example, screening occurs in areas confined enough that those being screened are likely to come into contact with the virus should an Ebola patient be among them. Furthermore, screeners are so poorly trained that they often cannot even properly measure temperature.
“They are checking your temperature three times before you get into the airport, but if you look at the people that do this kind of work, they don’t really know how to use the devices,” Feldmann explains. “They are writing down temperatures of 32°C, which everybody should know is impossible for a living person.” Feldmann calls for major overhauls in the system, as he asserts that the checks are “completely useless” and “just a disaster.”
In the weeks subsequent to the interview with Feldmann, a Liberian citizen from Monrovia, Thomas Eric Duncan, arrived in Texas having contracted Ebola. Duncan, who touched an Ebola victim while trying to help her take a taxi to the hospital, claimed on airport screening forms that he had not come into contact with anyone appearing to have Ebola symptoms, something for which the government of Liberia has vowed to prosecute Duncan. In announcing plans to prosecute, officials admitted the screenings were largely an honor system in which passengers were expected to be forthright on their documents.