Airports like O'Hare a focus point in Ebola battle

  • A CDC worker responds to a report of a sick passenger on an airplane during a safety exercise. The CDC operates a quarantine station at O'Hare International Airport to assess possible infectious-disease cases like Ebola.

    A CDC worker responds to a report of a sick passenger on an airplane during a safety exercise. The CDC operates a quarantine station at O'Hare International Airport to assess possible infectious-disease cases like Ebola. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Updated 10/2/2014 10:50 AM

In the wake of news that a man infected with the Ebola virus traveled from West Africa to Dallas late last month, it's hard not to consider the possibility that something similar could happen here.

O'Hare International Airport is one of the key hubs of international travel in the U.S., which could make the Chicago area, including the suburbs surrounding the airport, vulnerable to infectious diseases carried by passengers.


"We're one plane ride away from the worst health care in the world and worst health care conditions in the world," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said during a Daily Herald editorial board interview on Wednesday. "That's what we're seeing now in Texas."

National health officials acknowledge the danger, but they say that travel hubs like O'Hare are closely monitored.

"We regularly communicate with local emergency responders and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to stay on top of any exposure," said Christine Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pearson said that since the Ebola crisis has grown more serious in West Africa, the CDC has been provided new training and guidelines to flight crews, emergency workers and U.S. Customs officers at O'Hare and other airports.

"We're explaining what they should be looking for, how to recognize serious illnesses and how to notify us," Pearson said.

CDC officials said that customs officers will wear protective equipment such as gloves and surgical masks when interacting with ill travelers. They'll also hand out fliers in airports encouraging people to watch their health for 21 days -- the maximum time it can take for Ebola's symptoms to appear -- and listing steps to follow should they become sick.

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The CDC operates a quarantine station inside O'Hare, one of 20 it operates throughout the country. When an airline reports that a passenger on an incoming plane is sick, CDC personnel and emergency personnel from the Chicago Fire Department meet the plane and examine the sick passenger, Pearson said.

If it's determined that the passenger has an infectious disease, he or she will be transported to a nearby hospital for treatment, Pearson said.

"We generally don't keep the passenger on site," she said. "Immediate treatment is important."

Pearson noted that the Ebola patient in the Dallas case was not sick during his travels. He experienced symptoms only after he arrived in the U.S. Ebola patients are not contagious until symptoms appear.

"In a case like that, we would work with the state health department and other agencies to make sure that the other people on the plane were contacted," she said.


Ebola is a dangerous virus, causing symptoms like high fever, severe headache, vomiting and unexplained hemorrhages. But it is not airborne and does not spread easily. For that reason, national and state health officials have said that the risk of a widespread epidemic in the U.S. is low.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said in a statement this week that it has been advising hospitals and local health departments around the state on how to identify and handle Ebola cases. Suburban fire departments and hospitals have passed similar information to their personnel.

"We have done a lot of work and provided a lot of information to our front-line staff, especially to our (emergency room) staff so they are ready and can recognize a suspected case of Ebola if they see it," said Mary Anderson, infection control manager at Edward Hospital in Naperville.

• Daily Herald news services, staff writer Marni Pyke and ABC 7 Chicago contributed to this report.

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