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Most suspected Ebola cases in the US have been false alarms

CDC′s “Arlen Specter Headquarters and Emergency Operations Center“
CDC′s “Arlen Specter Headquarters and Emergency Operations Center“

On Friday, a hospital in Washington DC announced that they were evaluating a patient who had recently traveled to Nigeria — to see if the person had Ebola. Panicked headlines ensued.

But it turned out to be a false alarm. By Saturday, testing confirmed that the DC patient didn't actually have Ebola. This followed similar cases in Massachusetts, Hawaii, California, Maryland, and other states where people were initially "suspected" to have Ebola but didn't.

That's something to keep in mind when reading these headlines. So far, there have been dozens of suspected Ebola cases around the United States, and the vast majority have turned out to be false alarms.

There's a good reason why false alarms are so common: Ebola can be difficult to diagnose early on, because its initial symptoms are nonspecific things like fever and headache. It can look a lot like the flu — or like many other diseases that people might pick up in West Africa, such as malaria.

Hospitals need about a day to get test results back from CDC laboratories to see whether the person actually has Ebola or just the flu or some other disease. So, just to be on the safe side, health workers will usually isolate patients with these symptoms in the meantime —particularly if the person has been traveling in an Ebola-stricken country or has had close contact with an Ebola patient.

The vast majority of those Ebola tests have been turning out negative. "We've already… tested 14 other individuals who have been negative so far," said CDC director Tom Frieden in a press conference on October 2. (On top of that, there have been many hospital reports of possible Ebola cases that never even make it far enough for testing at the CDC. In August, the CDC reported that the US had had 68 "suspected" Ebola cases across 27 states — none panned out.)

As of October 3, there have only been a handful of genuine Ebola cases in the United States. One person was diagnosed in the US and is currently being treated in Texas. And three other Americans were diagnosed with Ebola in Liberia and were flown back to the US for treatment. Another person in West Africa is also expected to be flown to the US for treatment soon.

"It is not impossible that we will have other individuals come into the country and be diagnosed with Ebola," Friedan said. "That's why we have 12 laboratories throughout the country that are ready to test. "

Now that we're about to enter flu season, we may see a lot of headlines about suspected cases of Ebola in the United States. These cases will usually involve people who have been traveling to West Africa and now have a fever. But a suspected case is not a confirmed case. And, at least so far, most suspected cases have been false alarms.

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