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CDC director Frieden: We’re ‘nowhere near out of the woods’ with Ebola

November 14, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
Hospital officials in Omaha, Nebraska, are preparing to treat a surgeon who was reportedly infected with the Ebola virus while treating patients in Sierra Leone, where the outbreak continues to be dire. In Liberia, infections rates seem to be slowing, but cases have emerged in Mali. Jeffrey Brown gets an update from CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden about Ebola in West Africa and the U.S.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: the continuing fight to combat Ebola.

Hospital officials in Omaha, Nebraska, are preparing for a new case this weekend. The patient is a surgeon who is a national from Sierra Leone and a permanent resident of the United States. He reportedly was infected while treating patients in Sierra Leone. All eight Americans treated in the U.S. have survived. Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national, died in Dallas.

Nearly all of the more than 5,100 killed by Ebola have been in West Africa.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: The situation in Sierra Leone continues to be dire, with 435 new cases in just the past week, and now Mali is the latest country in the region to be hit with an outbreak. At the same time, infection rates in Liberia, the main focus of the disease in recent months, appear to be slowing.

New reports out today from the CDC examine all this. And its director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, joins me now.

And, Dr. Frieden, welcome again.

There have been these recent positive signs in Liberia. Is that how it looks to you? And, if so, what has gone well that might offer hope elsewhere?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director: We’re seeing proof of principle that the strategy of reducing Ebola by helping to ensure safe care, safe burial, community involvement, contact tracing, that works.

We’re seeing decreases in at least two of the counties in Liberia that were hardest-hit. But we have much farther to go than we have already come. We’re nowhere near out of the woods.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nowhere near, and flesh that out a little bit for us. In Liberia, in Sierra Leone, it conditions. We just mentioned Mali. How concerned are you about — about it spreading still?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: We’re having real challenges in every place that has Ebola in West Africa.

In Liberia, we’re seeing about one new cluster each day. And our staff and others are having to travel to remote areas to prevent each of those clusters from becoming a large outbreak with dozens or hundreds of cases.

For the past four decades, we have evaluated and helped stop one outbreak every year or two. Now it’s every day or two just in Liberia. In Sierra Leone, we’re still seeing widespread transmission. In Guinea, we have seen now the largest increase in the whole history of the epidemic there in Guinea, so big challenges in Guinea.

And we’re deeply concerned about Mali. In Mali, we already have a cluster of cases, with hundreds of exposed people who need to be tracked. So making sure that we do everything possible to get the situation in Mali under control, so it becomes the next Nigeria, which stopped a cluster, rather than the next Liberia, which had a countrywide epidemic, is the crucial thing to be focusing on now.

And that’s what our staff are doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about here in the U.S.? What can be said at this point? Is it possible to say it’s under control?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Well, at this point, there’s no one in the U.S. with Ebola. That’s the first time that’s been the case since early September. We have learned a lot about how to treat Ebola, how to ensure that the people caring for people with Ebola do so minimizing their risk of infection.

And I think people have a better sense of what’s needed going forward. At the CDC, we’re working very closely with hospitals throughout the country to have them prepared. And one thing that we have done that’s gone extremely well is to work with state and local health departments, which are now tracing every person returning from the affected countries in West Africa, checking in with them every day, and if they develop fever, even if from flu or some other infection, getting them safely transported to a health care facility and safely evaluated.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know there were a lot of — there was a lot of anger, there were a lot of questions early on over U.S. authorities and questions of competency, including you yourself. Were there issues or problems of omission, of communication, of competence early — in those early days? And do you think we’re past that?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Well, I wish we had known then what we know now.

But when the first person ever to have Ebola in the U.S. arrived, we based our decisions on the best available data. And when new data, new experience became available, we updated our guidance. We updated our practices. And that’s one of the reasons we have had no further spread of Ebola within the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so what happens now? What lessons — what’s the key lesson that you have learned from that?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: We have to keep up our guard.

We won’t get the risk of Ebola to zero in the U.S. until we stop it in West Africa. And Ebola is hard to fight. It requires intensity. It requires speed and flexibility. And that’s why we have put 170 people on the ground in West Africa. It’s the largest response in CDC history. They’re working, traveling by helicopter, by dugout canoe, going to remote villages to stop Ebola at the source, because that’s most important thing we can do to protect Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Thomas Frieden of the CDC, thank you once again.