A year ago, the Ebola crisis in West Africa became all too real as American healthcare workers from afflicted regions returned for treatment in the U.S., and a visiting West African national took ill and later died at a Texas hospital.
Although Ebola was successfully contained, a recent incident in New Jersey points to a gap in healthcare security that remains as troublesome as ever.
According to a May 25 Associated Press article, an American suffering from symptoms that very well could have been confused with Ebola — Lassa fever — allegedly failed to inform hospital workers in New Jersey that he had recently returned from a trip to Liberia.
Hospital officials said they had asked the man about his travel history and that he did not say he had recently been to West Africa, CDC officials said.
Lassa fever, a West African hemorrhagic illness that is typically milder than Ebola, spreads in much the same way: direct contact with infected bodily fluids. Severe cases may lead to death, proceeded by fever, vomiting, organ failure, shock and bleeding from the eyes, nose and gums. The unidentified New Jersey man died of organ failure before he could receive antiviral treatment at the second NJ hospital he checked into after taking ill, the report says.
The CDC is currently in the process of tracking down people who came in close contact with the returning traveler on his way back to New York via a Morocco flight. The mystery is, why didn’t the patient himself notify hospital workers that he had recently returned from West Africa?
Ebola, Lassa fever or something else entirely — in whatever form the next infectious disease story takes shape — illustrates that the American healthcare system remains a “sitting duck” for infectious diseases imported by ordinary travelers, let alone terrorists.
Efforts to monitor infectious diseases are only a first step. This story begs the question as to why we do not have a proactive public health safety strategy in place. There ought to be a nationwide searchable database that doctors and hospital administrators can access at any point of entry into the healthcare system to verify international travel history on patients who are either too ill to disclose their travel history or for reasons only they understand choose to withhold such critical information.
The CDC and Congress needs to act now to make passport activity available to healthcare workers in much the same way law enforcement may run a license plate check to determine if there are outstanding warrants on an individual during a traffic stop.
Police officers are not forced to rely upon the people they pull over or arrest to self-disclose prior run-ins with the law, nor should healthcare workers be forced to rely on patients to volunteer their international travel history. In today’s globalized world, we can no longer afford to leave critical health and safety information to chance.