How Ebola spreads: A lack of preparedness

When we met last week, Dr. Aileen Marty wouldn’t shake my hand. As I extended it to greet her, she smiled and said she was pleased to meet me but did not return the gesture. Marty had just spent a month in Nigeria, where even though an outbreak of the Ebola virus seems to have been contained, fear looms large as the virus continues to devastate Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in the west. In Africa, Marty became accustomed to greeting people without touching them. This, she told me, can save lives.

I asked how people are greeting each other. Marty approached and touched my elbow to hers. “That’s how they say ‘hi’ in Nigeria,” she said. Then she closed her hand into a fist and asked me to do the same. She moved her fist near mine, but we did not touch. This is, she said, the “Bluetooth greeting.”

The Cuban-born Marty is a contagious-diseases specialist and teaches at Miami’s Florida International University. She also works with the World Health Organization, assisting in efforts to curb epidemics around the world. This is why she spent 31 days in Nigeria.

I asked Marty how the Ebola epidemic in West Africa began. “Nobody knows how or why Ebola ended up in this outbreak in West Africa,” she explained. “No one knows how it got to Guinea.” She ventured a theory, impossible to prove, about people possibly eating meat from Ebola-infected bats. But, as she explained, officials just don’t know what started it. What we do know, however, is that thousands of Africans in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are infected, many have died, and the rest of the world is highly alarmed about the virus’ spread.

In Nigeria, Marty helped develop a system in airports and at borders to keep anyone infected with the Ebola virus from entering or leaving the country. It was successful against the virus. “In Nigeria we managed to extinguish it,” she told me with a big smile.

On her way home, she flew from Lagos, Nigeria, to Frankfurt, Germany. Upon landing in Germany, nobody asked her any questions; no one checked her for symptoms. She then flew to Miami. Again, her health was not evaluated. Not a single question.

“I get to the [global entry] kiosk and enter the information, put my fingerprints in and mark the fact that I’ve been in Nigeria, and nobody cares,” Marty said. “Nobody stopped me.”

This explains how the first Ebola case arrived stateside. Thomas Eric Duncan landed in Dallas from Liberia last month infected with the virus, yet nobody stopped him or evaluated his health. Nobody.

Shortly after Duncan died, American officials announced that passengers coming to the U.S. from affected areas in Africa would be screened for fever at major airports, though flights from those areas would not be banned. Also, President Barack Obama has described Ebola as a national security priority, and American officials are extremely concerned about eliminating the potential for the disease to spread further in the U.S.

Sadly, this is not the case in Latin America. Nations there are “not prepared” to face Ebola, Marty told me. “Preparation is about many levels. Level No. 1 is realizing that one individual has Ebola. No. 2, you need the resources to heal that individual, to protect the physicians and nurses treating those persons, and to prepare the room that you’re going to use.” Then she told me something quite alarming: “The last times I’ve been in Latin America, I haven’t seen that they are prepared.”

In other words, the region has been lucky. If Duncan had landed in Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean instead of Dallas, we could be dealing with a devastating epidemic. And the risk remains.

Marty, however, is not one to take risks. When she arrived at her home in Miami, “none of my clothing or anything that I brought with me came into the house until bleach had been poured on it,” she said. Though there are no indications she has been infected, she checks her temperature at least twice a day and avoids shaking other people’s hands.

Perhaps her elbow greeting will catch on.

P.S. about Mexico: According to Human Rights Watch, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s response to two recent massacres in Mexico – in Tlatlaya, where soldiers killed 22 people in what the military is calling a shootout with an armed gang and in Iguala, where 43 students were likely killed by police and drug gangs, then buried in mass graves – has been insufficient and tepid, and Peña Nieto has assumed no responsibility. To make matters worse, the president recently held a press conference, but didn’t allow reporters to ask questions. (Since he took office, Peña Nieto has tended to avoid any exchange with the press.) The government’s silence amid these violent crimes indicates a lack of vision and leadership, and it stokes more fear among the people. When the army kills civilians, and police and drug dealers cooperate in the murders of students, it’s because your leadership is coming apart at the seams. It all smells rotten – it smells like the old PRI.

(Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”)