The unrelenting Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa became decidedly scarier for Americans this week when someone who had flown the 1,000 miles from Liberia, where the epidemic is ongoing, to Lagos, Nigeria, where no cases had occurred, died of the infection. 

According to The Daily Beast, naturalized American citizen Patrick Sawyer became ill on the plane after it left Liberia; once he landed, he went directly to the hospital, was isolated, and died soon thereafter. In response, the West African airline carrier he had used, ASKY, headquartered in nearby Togo, has suspended all flights into and out of Liberia and Guinea as well as Sierra Leone. Until Mr. Sawyer’s death, all 1,201 cases reported to the WHO through July 27, including the 672 deaths, had occurred in one of these three adjacent West Africa countries. 

The single case ups the fear factor for one simple reason.  The working hypothesis till now had been that Ebola would more or less stay put, spreading town-to-town, affecting only neighboring countries, exactly because it is so fierce.  The time from infection to severe illness is typically so fast that it is unlikely that a person would be able to get it together enough to go to the airport while contagious—or else, would be so obviously unwell as to draw attention to himself.

Sawyer’s 1,000-mile flight changes this. The epidemic had been slowly expanding over five months, demonstrating that—despite headlines suggesting otherwise—it is not that contagious, except for those in sustained intimate contact. In contrast, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic infected 60 million Americans in just about the same five-month period of time. But now, Ebola has moved beyond its standard slow motion, person-to-person transmission. Rather than inching along, it has hopped.

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