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U.S. redirects airline passengers from Uganda for Ebola screenings

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Men look at an Ebola virus awareness poster following an outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by EPA-EFE
Men look at an Ebola virus awareness poster following an outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by EPA-EFE

Oct. 7 (UPI) -- The U.S. State Department has begun "enhanced screening" of airline passengers traveling from Uganda amid a rapidly spreading Ebola outbreak in the small east African nation.

The federal directive that became effective Friday morning means any traveler who has been to Uganda in the past 21 days will be redirected to one of five designated airports -- most of them along the Eastern seaboard -- to be screened for the virus.

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A health alert issued by the U.S. Embassy in Uganda said the hubs will include John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York; Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Washington Dulles International Airport, and Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

U.S. citizens will also be subject to the new rules, which disease experts believe might discourage sick Ugandans from traveling across the Atlantic, knowing they would be stopped at the border.

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Passengers who pass the screenings will be allowed to continue to their respective destinations.

The Biden administration has reenacted measures that were taken in recent years to check people for viral symptoms as they arrived from affected areas around the world.

In this latest outbreak, no Ebola cases have been reported outside Uganda, where about 145 people catch a flight to the United States each day, according to federal figures.

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In 2014, the U.S. government conducted Ebola screenings that identified seven travelers who arrived in the country with possible symptoms. Although none were initially found to have the virus, one man did go on to develop symptoms and later tested positive.

Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rerouted airline passengers from Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect information that would serve to track them down in the event of an outbreak.

Ebola is an insidious virus that causes severe fever, chills and other symptoms like bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea. The virus spreads through touching, kissing or sharing contaminated items, and causes death in at least 50% of cases.

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A person could have the virus for as long as three weeks before any symptoms appear, according to the World Health Organization.

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The CDC has also urged doctors nationwide to screen their own patients for the virus if any had recently traveled to Africa. The nation's foremost public health agency said it was taking the steps only "as a precaution," adding that the virus -- at least for now -- posed very little threat to the population.

Meanwhile, at least 36 deaths have been confirmed in Uganda since the outbreak began on Sept. 20, while health officials have identified more than 60 cases across the country, the WHO said.

This week, the U.S. Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response announced $110 million for the development of a vaccine to treat another Ebola strain known as Sudan virus.

"If approved this treatment will put the U.S. in a better position to prepare for and respond to future potential ebolavirus incidents," ASPR assistant secretary Dawn O'Connell said in a statement, according to CBS News. "Given the current outbreak of Ebola Sudan in Uganda, this work is now even more important."

Made by Johnson & Johnson and overseen by the National Institutes of Health, the vaccine has not yet been tested for its effectiveness against Ebola.

Ebola infections have risen across some districts in Uganda, according to Uganda's Health Ministry. The president has also addressed the nation on measures the government is putting in place to mitigate the spread.

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