U.S. health officials issued a travel warning Thursday for three West African nations as the death toll soared from an Ebola outbreak, while Obama administration officials downplayed the possibility that travelers could bring the virus to a U.S.-Africa summit President Obama will attend in Washington next week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an advisory against “non-essential” travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where the deadly disease has claimed the lives of at least 729 people and infected more than 1,300. The last time the federal agency issued such a travel warning was in 2003, during the SARS outbreak in Asia.
“Ebola is worsening in West Africa,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden. He said the agency is sending 50 additional staff to West Africa to advise countries on controlling the disease.
International health organizations describe the Ebola epidemic as out of control, and say it could take up to six months to suppress. There is no known cure or vaccine for the virus.
The head of the World Health Organization and the leaders of the three West African nations are expected to announce a $100 million response plan and will meet on Friday to launch the initiative.
The crisis caused Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma to declare a health emergency and to cancel his trip to Washington to attend next week’s summit, which begins Monday. The leaders of Liberia and Guinea also reportedly are canceling their plans to attend the conference.
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“Sierra Leone is in a great fight. … Failure is not an option,” Mr. Koroma told his nation in a televised address.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama has no plans “at this point” to alter or cancel the summit schedule. The White House is billing the conference as the largest gathering of African leaders ever in Washington, including some representatives from the nations where the contagion is spreading.
Mr. Earnest said the CDC has determined there is “no significant risk in the United States” from the Ebola outbreak.
The U.S. also is considering evacuating two American aid workers diagnosed with Ebola back to the U.S. for treatment.
While the administration is advising Americans not to travel to West Africa, there are no restrictions against people traveling to the U.S. from the countries where the outbreak is occurring. Rep. Alan Grayson, Florida Democrat, has asked the administration to restrict travel into the country from anyone who lives or has recently visited the three countries suffering from the breakout.
Mr. Grayson, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wants the State Department to ban citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from entering the U.S., including any travelers who have visited those countries in the past 90 days.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Grayson said Thursday that the administration had not responded to his request.
While officials are downplaying the possibility of the virus arriving in the U.S., others point to the case of Patrick Sawyer, a 40-year-old U.S. citizen who died from Ebola July 25 in Nigeria. Mr. Sawyer had been scheduled to fly to Minneapolis in mid-August to celebrate his daughter’s birthday.
Ebola’s flu-like symptoms appear abruptly after an incubation period of two to 21 days. Victims, who may experience severe internal and external bleeding, usually die from shock or organ failure within one to two weeks. Ebola spreads in human populations through direct contact with blood and other bodily fluid of an infected person; experts say it cannot be spread by sneezing or coughing.
Mr. Earnest said the CDC is alerting health care workers in the U.S. and reminding them how to isolate and deal with cases of Ebola, although the agency has determined it’s unlikely Ebola would spread if detected in the U.S.
Mr. Koroma said in a statement online that Sierra Leone is implementing measures aimed at tackling the Ebola virus, including quarantines and a ban on most public meetings.
“Fellow citizens, this is a national fight, and it behooves all of us to stand together to promote the truth about this deadly disease,” Mr. Koroma said. “Ebola is real, and we must stop its transmission.”
On Wednesday, the Peace Corps announced it was pulling all 340 volunteers from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in response to the outbreak of the highly contagious disease, which kills up to 90 percent of those infected.