No matter how confident the CDC may be and no matter how irrational it is to panic, there's still no getting around it: it's terrifying to hear that Ebola is here in the United States. The notion of this disease within our borders is the kind of nightmare scenario we like to push out of our minds because it's hard to sleep otherwise.
The first exposure, so to speak, that many of us had to the horrors of Ebola came 20 years ago in the bestselling book The Hot Zone, which told the story of the birth of the virus in Africa as well as a fight to contain a similar outbreak at a monkey house just outside Washington, DC. This is where we learned what Ebola could do and how it killed -- swiftly, gruesomely and excruciatingly, by crashing the human body, liquefying its insides and causing it to ultimately bleed out. The knowledge that we were separated by an ocean from every single reported case of the disease brought some comfort, but the book made it clear that in the era of air travel and continental connectivity, that ocean buffer provided less and less insurance.
Now it's here. At long last. The details of the very first case of Ebola ever diagnosed in the United States are somewhat sparse and probably won't satisfy the curiosity of a public clamoring to know all it can. But what the CDC is reporting so far is that a person who traveled from Liberia to the U.S. on September 19th was infected with Ebola. He arrived in this country with no visible symptoms, which means that at the time it was likely he wasn't contagious. Five days after arriving here, the disease began presenting itself. On the 26th, the person sought care from a doctor and was admitted to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas and placed in isolation this past Sunday. That's all we know, other than that the CDC and other health officials now have to piece together the days that a man carrying Ebola was walking free among the public. They have to find out who he interacted with and those people have to be monitored for three weeks under the same protocols currently in place for the patient himself.
Think for a moment who you've come into direct physical contact with over the past five days. Can you remember everyone? Can you remember how many people you shook hands with? Who you touched and who may have touched you? Trace the lines, beginning with yourself, out through the people you had physical contact with and potentially beyond to the people they had physical contact with. As a wealthy industrialized nation, the United States has environmental factors and health and safety standards in place that would make it much harder for a disease like Ebola to rampage through the population as it has in West Africa. But when you're talking about a disease like this, that's only somewhat reassuring.
Dr. Tom Frieden of the CDC says he has absolute faith that Ebola could be stopped in its tracks here in the states. There's no reason to doubt him, but we just crossed a truly unsettling milestone in the worst outbreak of Ebola in world history. That's scary no matter what.