Don’t panic about Ebola patients stopping in Bangor

A second American aid worker who contracted the Ebola virus in West Africa landed at Bangor International Airport this morning, aboard a medical transport plane stopping to refuel. 

Missionary Nancy Writebol, 59, the expected passenger, was on her way from Liberia to be treated by infectious disease specialists in a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Reuters reported.

Writebol follows Dr. Kent Brantly, who stopped at the Bangor airport on Saturday on his way to Atlanta. Both were expected to remain on their flights during refueling.

You may find the appearance of a rare and deadly disease never seen in this part of the world unnerving. Or you may not. But what are the chances of the BIA stops leading to the spread of Ebola in Bangor?

“It’s nonexistent,” says Dr. Robert Pinsky, hospital epidemiologist at Eastern Maine Medical Center. “[Ebola] is spread by direct contact with bodily secretions. It isn’t spread through the air.”

In other words, contracting the virus requires close contact with an infected individual. Someone must touch the bodily fluids (such as blood, sweat, urine, or semen) of a person or animal infected with the virus.

Ebola is less transmissible than other viruses such as SARS or avian flu, which can spread through the air, Pinsky explained. But it’s deadly, killing at least about 60 percent of infected individuals, he said.

“If even a small breakdown in precautions occurs, there’s a risk of transmission and it’s a highly fatal infection,” Pinksy said. “It’s not that it’s much more transmissible than other viruses that we deal with every day, it’s just so much more serious.”

Ebola is rare, but the precautions health workers take to avoid catching it are common. The typical infection prevention protocols apply, including wearing gloves, masks, and protective eyewear, Pinsky said.

Because even a small slip up can expose a nurse or doctor to the virus, Ebola patients are best treated at facilities like Emory with high-level isolation wards, he said. But EMMC could conceivably handle a case of Ebola by meticulously following infection protocols.

“Any hospital should be able to take appropriate precautions to prevent transmission,” Pinsky said.

Many hospitals also could provide the supportive care Ebola patients need, such as blood transfusions and breathing assistance with a ventilator. Ebola has no proven cure, so all doctors can do is try to keep the body functioning while it fights off the disease.

Writebol and Brantley, however, improved some after they received an experimental drug previously tested only on monkeys.

The two aid workers are believed to be the first Ebola patients ever treated in the United States. The current outbreak of Ebola is the worst in recorded history.

If you’re interested in further explanation of the outbreak, check out this helpful breakdown from Vox.


Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.