By Laila Kearney and Patricia Zengerle
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fears are growing in the United States about Ebola with about 200 airline cabin cleaners walking off the job in New York and some lawmakers demanding the government ban travelers from the West African countries hit hardest by the virus.
"The nation is frightened, and people are frightened of this disease," the U.S. cabinet secretary for health, Sylvia Burwell, said on Thursday, a day after the death in Texas of the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell told a news conference that people were frightened because Ebola "has a very high mortality rate. They're frightened because they need to learn and understand what the facts are about that disease."
As the government prepares to start screening passengers from West Africa for fever at five major airports over the next week, cleaners at New York's LaGuardia Airport on Thursday stopped work in protest over what they say is insufficient protection for workers whose jobs include cleaning up vomit and bathrooms.
The Ebola virus causes hemorrhagic fever and is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person, who would suffer severe bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.
"We are always with feces and near garbage," Sharekul Islam, 20, whose job cleaning airplane cabins at New York's John F. Kennedy airport regularly exposes him exposes him to the type of waste and fluids that can transmit Ebola.
Twenty-three Republican and three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to President Barack Obama asking the State Department to impose a travel ban and restrict visas issued to citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In the letter, dated Oct. 8, they also asked U.S. health and border control officials to consider quarantine for anyone who arrives from the affected nations after being exposed to Ebola until 21 days have passed, the period in which they would show signs of the illness.
It said the World Health Organization "is an organization of unelected bureaucrats and political appointees of foreign countries. It has no duty to protect the lives and well-being of Americans, as you do."
Ebola has killed nearly 4,000 people in three impoverished countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, since March in the largest outbreak on record with a death toll averaging about 50 percent of cases. An unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has killed dozens. [ID:nEBOLATAL]
A Liberian man who flew on commercial flights from his home country on Sept. 19 and died in Dallas, Texas on Wednesday morning had had contact in Liberia with a woman who later died of the disease.
Texas health officials said they expect test results Thursday for a sheriff’s deputy who was admitted to hospital Wednesday after saying he may have been exposed to the Liberian man. They called his risk for Ebola extremely low.
Separately in Washington, Republicans in the House agreed to release $700 million more to fight Ebola from the Defense Department's request to shift $1 billion in war funds, bringing the total so far to $750 million.
U.S. health officials, while answering questions about mistakes in the treatment of Liberian man Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas and overall preparedness for Ebola patients, have emphasized the need to tackle the virus at its source in West Africa.
"This is a fluid and heterogeneous epidemic. It is changing quickly and it’s going to be a long fight," Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday at a high-level meeting of major donors at the World Bank. Frieden compared Ebola to AIDS and said, "Speed is the most important variable here. This is controllable and this was preventable."
A Spanish nurse is in serious condition in Madrid with Ebola after treating a priest who was repatriated from West Africa and died of the disease, the first reported transmission outside of the region. A British man suspected of contracting the virus died in Macedonia, a government official said on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Sebastien Malo in New York, David Morgan, Lesley Wroughton and David Lawder in Washington, Richard Valdmanis and Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Peter Henderson)