Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Miami can’t afford to not act on Ebola

A hazardous material cleaner arrives at the apartment complex in Dallas, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas stayed last week. The crew is expected to remove items including towels and bed sheets used by Duncan, who is being treated at an isolation unit at a Dallas hospital. The family living there has been confined under armed guard while being monitored by health officials.
A hazardous material cleaner arrives at the apartment complex in Dallas, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas stayed last week. The crew is expected to remove items including towels and bed sheets used by Duncan, who is being treated at an isolation unit at a Dallas hospital. The family living there has been confined under armed guard while being monitored by health officials. AP

Are we ready in South Florida to deal with the Ebola virus if an infected person were to reach our shores?

We can’t afford not to ask that question.

Miami is a major international point of entry by air and sea. A lot of us are international travelers who straddle different worlds, including the affected countries in West Africa.

The only thing that surprises about the Ebola outbreak is that the discovery of the first U.S. patient wasn’t made in Miami or New York, but in Dallas.

We should be more concerned here. As the Ebola case in Texas illustrates, the only thing that stands between a community being exposed and this deadly virus is a person’s honesty in answering a travel questionnaire.

Are we doing enough to create awareness and safeguard our community?

“The bottom line is that while we are doing what we can, we are not doing all that we should,” Dr. Aileen Marty, a professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University’s College of Medicine, told me Friday.

As we spoke, two more potential patients were identified, this time in the Washington D.C. area, and people in contact with them were quarantined.

Dr. Marty knows what’s at stake.

She spent a month in Nigeria working for the World Health Organization with point-of-entry workers — from airport personnel to ship captains — and helped set up a system to screen passengers arriving and leaving the country. She helped teach health workers how to identify symptoms of Ebola, contain the deadly disease, and protect themselves.

But she hasn’t been asked here to do the same. Only a healthcare association has reached out to her to train health workers.

It’s hard to believe there aren’t more prevention efforts.

Consider this: Eighty airlines fly from MIA to about 150 destinations around the world. In August alone, when the Ebola outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern, almost one million international passengers deplaned at MIA. And four million cruise ship passengers came through Port of Miami last year, a number on the rise.

While there are no direct flights from the Liberian capital of Monrovia to Miami, for example, plenty of connecting flights offer options that could easily shuttle people here from West Africa. It’s as easy as a making a Delta connection in Atlanta. And some of the cheapest fares involve two-stop flights through Caribbean countries with daily Miami service.

MIA has a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quarantine station and “healthcare workers ready to help,” Dr. Marty said.

“However, that would in no way stop a situation such as what happened in Dallas where the individual passed out of the airport while he was still asymptomatic,” she said.

Another point of possible connection that shouldn’t be overlooked is Cuba. Just 90 miles south, a country extraordinarily linked to Miami is sending 461 health workers to Africa for six months.

Containing the virus requires that health and travel communities remain on alert.

If the Dallas case proves anything, it’s how easily the disease travels. It behooves South Florida to be prepared.

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