WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Five major U.S. airports will begin screening travelers entering the country from the three West African nations hit hardest by the ongoing Ebola epidemic, federal health officials announced Wednesday.
These five airports receive 94 percent of the roughly 150 travelers who arrive daily in the United States from the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during an afternoon news briefing.
The first airport, JFK International Airport in New York City, will begin the enhanced screening procedures on Saturday. JFK receives nearly half of all travelers from the three countries struggling with Ebola, officials said.
The four other airports -- Washington Dulles International, O'Hare International in Chicago, Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta and Newark Liberty International in New Jersey -- will begin their enhanced entry screening programs next week.
"It's not an effort that will be particularly disruptive to large numbers of people," Frieden said. "We think it is manageable."
Frieden said these screening measures make more sense than cutting off travel to the three countries, since such a move would hamper global efforts to end the Ebola outbreak there. Aid workers wouldn't want to travel to West Africa to help if there was a chance they wouldn't be able to return home, he explained.
"As long as Ebola continues to spread in Africa, we can't make the risk zero here," Frieden said.
The CDC is sending additional staff to the five airports to support the new screening measures, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Customs & Border Protection.
After passport reviews, travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will be escorted by customs agents to an area of the airport set aside for screening. Officials will be able to identify these travelers even if they have taken one or more connecting flights, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said at the news briefing.
Customs officials will observe these travelers for signs of illness and ask them a series of health and exposure questions. Trained medical staff will take their temperature with a non-contact thermometer.
Those without symptoms or a known history of exposure will receive health information about Ebola, and will be reminded to monitor themselves for symptoms.
Travelers will be routed to a CDC quarantine station if they are running a fever, showing symptoms of Ebola or giving answers that reveal a possible Ebola exposure. Once there, a public health officer will take another temperature reading and evaluate the person's health.
Anyone who needs further evaluation or monitoring after the CDC screening will be referred to the appropriate public health authority.
Enhanced entry screening might have spotted Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan, who entered the United States on Sept. 20, apparently healthy, before falling ill with Ebola days later, Frieden said. Duncan died in a Dallas hospital on Wednesday.
Even though Duncan wasn't running a fever during his flight, "these additional questions may have identified him after he arrived in the United States," Frieden said.
These measures will complement the exit screening procedures that have already been implemented in the affected West African countries. CDC experts have worked closely with local authorities to implement those measures.
During the two months since exit screening began in the three countries, 77 out of 36,000 people screened have been turned away from their flight due to health concerns, the CDC said. None of those 77 passengers ultimately came down with Ebola; instead, many had contracted malaria, a disease common in West Africa.
Frieden said health officials expect to see some patients with fevers during entry screening, "and that will cause some obvious and understandable concern at the airport," but people should keep in mind that most or all of these people will not have Ebola.
West Africa's Ebola epidemic is the worst outbreak ever of the disease. So far, an estimated 8,000 people have become infected and an estimated 3,880 people have died in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization.
Visit the World Health Organization for more on Ebola.