Professor returns from Ebola aid trip in West Africa

Photo courtesy of World Health Organization

Nicole Montero/Staff Writer

Aileen Marty, professor in the college of medicine, returned to Miami this month after helping with the recent Ebola outbreak in Nigeria as part of the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

Marty spent 31 days in West Africa battling with dozens of cases concerning Ebola, an infectious and generally fatal disease marked by fever and severe internal bleeding that spreads through contact with bodily fluids of infected people.

Marty and her team set up screening systems for all passengers going to and leaving the country. Their task became challenging when individuals tried to beat the system Marty set up.

“As they would come up with evasive maneuvers, we would come up with ways to keep those from functioning and still be able to assure that we had no one leaving or entering with Ebola,” she said. “I know this virus. I know how deadly and scary it is.”

Within the first few days, Marty became the WHO’s team lead for points of entry. She was put in charge of figuring out how to avoid immigration and emigration of people through different points of entry — land ports, seaports and airports.

“I went because I didn’t want to see Ebola in the United States,” she said. “I don’t want to see it anywhere else and I wanted to help all those individuals. I wanted to work to extinguish the outbreak.”

Even though a recent case in Dallas proved to be fatal for Thomas Eric Duncan, a man traveling from Liberia, Marty remains confident that Ebola will not become an epidemic in the United States.

“It was a mistake,” she said. “A patient shows up from a country which has an outbreak that’s out of control and gets sent home before he has to come into the hospital… I can’t imagine that ever happening again.”

Duncan contracted the virus from a woman who underwent a miscarriage. He helped her get home and, according to Marty, he was in close contact with the kinds of bodily fluids that contained the virus. The woman died a couple hours after Duncan left her home and he became ill after arriving in Dallas.

The virus’ incubation period varies from two to 21 days — meaning that people may start showing symptoms at any time throughout that period. Marty said that Duncan was not showing symptoms when he went through the mandatory exit screening in Liberia, but rather, after he arrived in the U.S.

“There is virtually zero chance that we’re going to see an epidemic or an outbreak of Ebola in the United States,” said Marty. “What I am concerned about is the fact that it is entirely possible for another individual to enter the U.S. during the incubation period and not have any symptoms at all.”

After Marty’s visit, Nigeria was able to get the outbreak under control and was declared Ebola-free. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are now the most infected countries.

“In those countries, we haven’t been able to do appropriate contact tracing,” she said. “We don’t know everybody who’s sick and we don’t know if whoever’s sick has [been] exposed [to] anyone.”

This means that people visiting those countries won’t know if they get in close contact with somebody who’s just starting to manifest symptoms of the disease.

Marty believes that everyone needs to be aware of the virus, even if it’s not an epidemic in the United States.

“There’s a general level of awareness in the population about all the infectious diseases that are out there,” she said. “Why should we know about anything going on? About Ebola? Knowledge empowers and it can impact you when you’re not aware.”

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