MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota health officials are trying to ease any fears about the possible spread of Ebola after an outbreak of the deadly disease in West Africa.
The Minnesota Department of Health hosted a public information meeting attended by about 150 people in Brooklyn Center on Wednesday night. The Minneapolis suburbs are home to thousands of people with ties to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three countries most severely affected by the African outbreak.
Health officials stress that the risk of Ebola being spread in Minnesota remains “very low.” The state Health Department has sent several alerts to health care providers on symptoms to watch for in patients who recently have traveled to West Africa.
“There is not Ebola in Minnesota. There is not Ebola in the United States. There has never been a transmission of Ebola in the United States,” said Dr. Aaron DeVries, medical director of the state health department’s infectious diseases division.
A 40-year-old Minnesota man who was a Liberian government official, Patrick Sawyer of Coon Rapids, died of Ebola on July 25 while flying from Liberia to Nigeria. As of Wednesday, at least 932 people in four West Africa countries had died of the disease.
The state Health Department points out that Ebola — a disease with no proven treatment or cure — is transmitted by contact with blood or other bodily fluids from someone who is sick with Ebola or died of the disease. The viral hemorrhagic fever is not spread through casual contact, the department noted.
Wynfred Russell, executive director of African Career, Education and Resource Inc., said getting information out about Ebola is key to controlling the disease. A Liberian, Russell told the meeting he had spoken to his brother in Liberia via Skype on Wednesday.
“Many of us here in this room, we are texting, we are on Facebook, we are using all the tools to get the information out there, about how the disease is spread,” Russell said.
News about the Ebola outbreak has prompted a rise in calls to the state Health Department, from zero to some six to eight calls a day from businesses or health providers, said Kris Ehresmann, the department’s infectious disease director. She said they usually are to ask whether an employee who has recently returned from Liberia and has no sign of illness is OK to work.
“It certainly has been the disease of the week or month,” Ehresmann said.
Ehresmann said the state Health Department is continually monitoring for infectious diseases. She cited the case of a Minnesota man who was hospitalized in March with fever and confusion after returning from Liberia; the department’s tests found he had Lassa fever, a viral disease common in West Africa but rare in the U.S. Just this week, she said, the Health Department is testing for a suspected case of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
The state Health Department is also translating its information on Ebola into French for Minnesotans from Liberia or Sierra Leone who speak that language, Ehresmann said.
Meanwhile, some leaders in Minnesota’s community of African immigrants have formed a task force on Ebola. Goals include increased awareness and understanding of Ebola while avoiding stigmatizing Minnesota African communities. The task force also aims to raise money and resources, including medical supplies, for relief groups working in Africa.
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