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It's only a matter of time, some researchers are warning, before isolated cases of Ebola start turning up in developed nations, as well as hitherto-unaffected African countries.
The probability of seeing at least one imported case of Ebola in the U.S. is as high as 18 percent by late September, researchers reported Tuesday in the journal PLOS Currents: Outbreaks. That's compared to less than 5 percent right now.
"What is happening in West Africa is going to get here. We can't escape that at this point," says physicist Alessandro Vespignani, the senior author on the study, who analyzes the spread of infectious diseases at Northeastern University.
To be clear, the projection is for at least one imported case of Ebola — not for the kind of viral mayhem afflicting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
"What we could expect, if there is an importation, would be very small clusters of cases, between one and three," Vespignani says.
There's a 25 to 28 percent chance that an Ebola case will turn up in the U.K. by late September. Belgium, France and Germany will have lower risk. "But it's not negligible," Vespignani says. "Sooner or later, they will arrive."
The researchers calculated the impact of severe restrictions on flights from Ebola-affected regions. An 80 percent reduction in air travelers would do no more than delay the impact of Ebola by a few weeks. (A 100 percent choke-off of air travel is considered impossible.)
"Unless you can completely shut down the transportation systems, these kinds of efforts will, at best, buy you a little time," Longini says. "And they can be quite counterproductive because you're interrupting the flow of help, goods and services. It can make the epidemic worse in the country that's being quarantined."