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Ebola fight fades from headlines, but remains critical

Dr. Craig Spencer, who treated Ebola patients in

Dr. Craig Spencer, who treated Ebola patients in Guinea, tested positive for Ebola on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Facebook

What happened to Ebola?

After months of alarm about the epidemic in West Africa and fear of a lethal outbreak in the United States, the deadly disease has faded from public consciousness.

That's a mixed blessing.

We can all breathe a sigh of relief because there have been only nine cases in the United States. That's evidence that despite serious initial hiccups, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are up to the challenge.

But there's still cause for concern, a bit domestically and much more abroad.

A CDC technician in Atlanta was exposed to the virus on Dec. 22 due to a mix-up at a high-security lab where scientists prepared two sets of fluid samples from Ebola-infected guinea pigs. One set was to remain in the high-security lab. The other was to be treated with a solution to kill the virus and then sent to a lower-security lab down the hall where genetic material was to be extracted.

The live virus was sent down the hall by mistake. So now a technician who may have been exposed is being monitored for signs of infection. CDC staffers made similar mistakes with anthrax in the spring and summer. They've got to do better.

But the situation is nothing like it was in the fall, when transmission of the disease to medical workers in the United States shook the nation's faith in the CDC. Elected officials clamored for a ban on flights from West Africa and mandatory isolation of all returning medical workers.

Those panicked approaches were at odds with CDC recommendations and proved unnecessary, although the epidemic abroad has certainly not ended. As of Christmas Eve, 19,497 cases had resulted in 7,588 deaths, primarily in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the CDC.

The international and local response has been ramped up in those countries and there has been considerable progress in increasing the number of treatment centers and in educating people about the disease.

But there is still a shortage of treatment beds in Guinea, and in Sierra Leone so many medical workers in the capital, Freetown, have died of Ebola that the city's major hospital is closed, CDC director Thomas Frieden said upon his return from the region on Dec. 22. Liberia, where ensuring proper burial of the infected is now front and center, is in much better shape, he said.

Still Frieden predicted a long, hard fight before every contact is traced and every chain of transmission is broken, which would signal the end of the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen.

Alvin Bessent is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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