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Lawmakers Grill Dallas Health Officials On Ebola Response


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The World Health Organization says the Ebola virus has claimed more than 4,000 lives in West Africa. Now travelers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will face more stringent health screening at 5 U.S. airports.

Yesterday in Dallas, members of the U.S. Congress pressed public health officials on their handling of the first Ebola case diagnosed in the U.S. NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Dallas.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Thomas Eric Duncan, who died Wednesday, became infected with the virus in Liberia but didn't get ill until after he traveled to Dallas on a commercial flight. At yesterday's Congressional field hearing in Texas, Republican members of the House Committee on Homeland Security were focused on one question.


R-TX MICHAEL MCCAUL: Many of my constituents and many Americans are asking the question - why aren't we banning all flights from West Africa into the United States?

BRADY: That was Committee Chair and Texas Congressman Michael McCaul. His question was directed to Doctor Toby Merlin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


TOBY MERLIN: The disease outbreak in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone is now at a point where we may be able to stop it.

BRADY: But to do that, Merlin says authorities need uninhibited transportation in and out of those countries. That includes commercial and government flights to bring help and supplies. And he says those countries also need that transportation, or the governments there could be at risk of collapsing. Merlin says banning flights now could make it more difficult to fight the disease, allowing it to spread to other countries.


MERLIN: And what we want is to not do things that may give the appearance, currently, of protecting us but actually put us at greater risk later on by allowing the disease to grow there.

BRADY: Merlin also reinforced the message public health officials have repeated often - that Ebola is contagious only when a person is exhibiting symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. And even then, that person's bodily fluids have to get into someone else's cut or mucous membrane to spread. That prompted a question from Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina. He asked if the disease is so difficult to acquire, why deploy people in white protective gear to gut the apartment where Thomas Eric Duncan was staying?


R-SC MARK SANFORD: The flat out stripped that apartment, in essence, down to the studs. I mean, they took out the carpet, they took out the drapes, they took out everything.

BRADY: And then the contents were burned. Sanford said that sent a confusing message to people. Doctor Brett Giroir, CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center tried to explain why such aggressive measures were taken. He said authorities wanted to demonstrate that they're doing everything they can to keep people safe.


BRETT GIROIR: It was approached with an abundance of caution. And for example, a toilet can be decontaminated, but do you want to sit there and decontaminate the toilet and have every question, or you just want to pick the toilet up, put it in a drum and get rid of it and be done?

BRADY: Along with cleaning up the apartment, health officials also are monitoring 48 people who Thomas Eric Duncan had contact with before he died. Texas Commissioner of Health, Doctor David Lakey, says so far none show signs of Ebola. In Washington, D.C. Friday, a woman representing Duncan's family spoke with reporters. Saymendy Lloyd said Duncan's fiance, Louise Troh, also remains symptom-free.


SAYMENDY LLOYD: She doesn't have any fever. She's doing pretty good.

BRADY: Lloyd said Troh was looking forward to the end of a 21 day incubation period on October 19. She, along with three family members who were in the apartment with her, are in isolation until then.

Lloyd says Duncan's family has concerns about the care he received. She says they believe the hospital should have admitted him when he showed up at the emergency room the first time. Instead, he was given antibiotics and sent home.


LLOYD: Legal action is probably something that will come later on. But at this moment, they're grieving over the fact that they were not able to give him a decent burial, but had to be cremated the same day of his death.

BRADY: Lloyd says the family is planning a memorial service, but they're waiting until October 19 so his fiancee can attend. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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