US health chiefs in hot seat over flawed Ebola response

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Washington (AFP) - Lawmakers grilled top US health officials Thursday over the nation's fumbling response to the Ebola crisis, as apologetic Texas authorities said they were doing everything possible to prevent further outbreaks.

Health authorities told a congressional hearing that the first person infected with Ebola in the United States, nurse Nina Pham, was being transferred from a Dallas hospital at the heart of the US outbreak to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) near Washington.

With the White House scrambling to contain a crisis, President Barack Obama convened crisis talks with his top aides for the second day running.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Thomas Frieden has become the primary target of criticism, which mounted after revelations that a second Texas nurse infected after treating an Ebola victim was allowed to board a commercial flight despite reporting a mild fever.

Some lawmakers have demanded Frieden be sacked, and others have accused Obama of a lack of leadership.

Congressional leaders meanwhile are urging a US travel ban on all citizens of the three West African nations hardest hit by the epidemic: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"The stakes in this battle couldn't be any higher," Tim Murphy, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight, told a packed hearing.

"The trust and credibility of the administration and government are waning as the American public loses confidence each day with demonstrated failures of the current strategy."

Officials acknowledged they still did not know how two Dallas nurses who treated Liberian Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan contracted the virus.

But Frieden insisted authorities could keep the epidemic at bay in America.

"We remain confident that Ebola is not a significant public health threat to the United States," he told the panel.

- 'People are scared' -

That statement offered little consolation to worried lawmakers.

"People are scared. We need all hands on deck. We need a strategy," House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton warned.

"People's lives are at stake, and the response so far has been unacceptable."

Some schools in Ohio and Texas closed Thursday after it emerged that some children were on the same flight as the second infected Dallas nurse.

The CDC acknowledged allowing her to fly after she reported having a fever. Officials are now considering a travel ban in such cases, a source told AFP.

Some lawmakers warned of an epidemic of fear in a country that has so far seen only a handful of Ebola patients.

"We need to put all of this in perspective, and not panic," House Democrat Henry Waxman told the panel.

Nearly 4,500 people -- the vast majority of them in West Africa -- are known to have died from Ebola, although Frieden cautioned the toll "may be substantially under-reported."

Legislators pointed to flaws in the handling of Duncan, who died last week.

"Despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes," said Daniel Varga, chief clinical officer of Texas Health Resources, which runs the hospital where Duncan was treated.

"It is clear there was an exposure somewhere, sometime, and we are poring over records and observations and doing all we can to find the answers."

- Hospital 'never talked about Ebola' -

A nurse who treated one of the sick caregivers accused Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of failing to adequately prepare staff for handling Ebola cases.

"We never talked about Ebola and we probably should have," Brianna Aguirre told NBC's "Today" show.

"They gave us an optional seminar to go to. Just informational, not hands on," she added. "We were never told what to look for."

Under questioning, Varga acknowledged no Ebola training was provided before Duncan's arrival.

Authorities began Ebola screening Thursday at the Washington area Dulles airport, Chicago's O'Hare, Newark and Atlanta airports, after New York's JFK began screening last week.

Together, the airports receive 94 percent of travelers from the Ebola-affected countries.

Anthony Fauci, director of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Pham was being transferred to NIH in part to ease pressure on the Dallas hospital, which is monitoring 70 health care workers potentially exposed to the virus.

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