State health experts have briefed physicians and hospitals here about how to respond if a returning traveler shows symptoms of the dreaded Ebola virus that is ravaging parts of West Africa.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state's new epidemiologist, said the health department is reminding doctors to ask for a travel history whenever someone seeks treatment for illness with a fever.
"That's an important part of the history that any clinician should get about any febrile illness," he said. "And what would happen is if there was concern for a possible patient with an illness consistent with Ebola, we would ask that the clinicians isolate the patient, which any of our acute-care hospitals are equipped to do."
Doctors should then contact the public health division, which would coordinate testing and treatment, Chan said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month issued a warning to avoid nonessential travel to the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which have been affected by the Ebola outbreak. But the agency is not recommending screening passengers traveling from affected countries, according to its web site.
The chances of an Ebola case here are remote, said Dr. Jose Montero, director of public health at the Department of Health and Human Services. But the public needs to know that New Hampshire hospitals have the expertise to handle it should one occur, he said.
"We can put the patient in isolation and all our clinical staff is properly trained in the precautions that they have to follow to prevent exposure to secretions that will transmit the disease," he said.
Ebola is not contagious until symptoms appear and transmission is through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person or exposure to contaminated objects such as needles, according to the CDC.
News that two American health-care workers treating Ebola patients in Africa had been infected and transferred to a hospital in Atlanta raised fears among some that the deadly virus could spread here.
But Chan said even if an infected traveler did return to the U.S. and seek treatment here, the risk of transmission would be far lower than what is currently being seen in Africa.
"In rural communities in Africa, they may not have protective equipment, they may have to reuse protective equipment, they may not have running water, they may not have the same sort of isolation or private rooms," he said.
Montero said what makes Ebola especially scary is its high mortality rate. "When you know that most patients who get it will die, certainly it's something that gives fear," he said.
Still, there are other health issues he wishes more Americans were concerned about instead, such as reducing smoking and obesity to prevent cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
"Those are things we should worry about and work for," he said.