The patient in the U.S. who was diagnosed with Ebola had no symptoms during travel and was therefore not contagious during travel, Canadian health officials say. 

Health Minister Rona Ambrose and Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's chief public health officer, discussed the Ebola outbreak in West Africa on Wednesday at the meeting of federal, provincial and territorial health ministers in Banff, Alta.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first case of the deadly virus was diagnosed in the United States. A traveller from Liberia is under treatment in hospital in Dallas.

The individual did not travel through Canada and was not contagious, Ambrose said.

"Canada is very well prepared," for infectious diseases like Ebola, she said.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with an individual with symptoms, not casual contact as the cold and flu viruses do, Taylor said.

"I want to reassure everyone that the risk to Canadians remains very low," Taylor said.

Ebola virus face shield

WHO officials told Canada that face shields are needed immediately in West Africa, but Ottawa is having difficulty shipping 350,000 of them. (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Also on Wednesday, B.C.'s provincial health officer said it would not be surprising to see cases of the Ebola virus appear, but that there is no reason for alarm.

"We likely think over the next six months [we'll] probably import a case or two, or maybe even three," Dr. Perry Kendall told CBC News.

The province is prepared to deal with such cases, should they arise, he said.

Canadian and U.S. health officials stressed that the risk to the public is low, given that health systems in North America include clean water, protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves that are in short supply in West Africa.

Federal health officials said Canada is well prepared in several ways:

  • To identify and prevent the spread of infections, such as at borders.
  • The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and provincial laboratories are ready to detect the virus and respond quickly. Experts at Quebec's lab are able to diagnose Ebola and labs in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia will be next, Taylor said.
  • Canadian hospitals have infection control systems to limit the spread of infection and protect health-care workers.

So far, about 20 suspected cases of Ebola virus have been tested and cleared in Canada, which shows the system is working, Taylor said.

Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said Canadians can be confident that our hospitals are ready and on alert. The level of care available in North America differs markedly from West Africa.

"West Africans desperately need our help," McGeer said in an interview on Wednesday. "The best way to protect ourselves in Canada, honestly, is not to have disease in West Africa."

Challenges in delivering aid

WHO officials told Canada that the face shields are needed immediately to cover the faces of health-care workers to prevent splashes from getting into their eyes or on their skin, Taylor said. But he added that while Canada is trying to get 350,000 face shields to West Africa, the government is having difficulty with transport as commercial airlines pull out.

The rest of Canada's donations will be shipped by sea.

Taylor said that under the Quarantine Act, travellers are obligated to report to border agents if they feel sick or if they've been in contact with somebody who is sick or infectious. The quarantine officers who make decisions about whether assessments are needed right away are highly trained nurses, Taylor told CBC's Evan Solomon on Power & Politics.

Canada Border Service agents also have a reminder on their computer screens to ask travellers if they are sick, and if the answer is yes to immediately refer the person to quarantine officers for assessment.

Taylor said the step is new and specific to anyone coming from the affected area who could possibly be ill.

It can take up to 21 days after someone is exposed to the Ebola virus to show symptoms and be infectious.

Taylor also reminded health practitioners to be aware of the Ebola outbreak and to ask patients if they've had any recent travel to West Africa.

Honesty from patients is also needed, said Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist with Toronto's University Health Network

"You're very reliant on an individual who has been exposed to one of these viruses to be aware of it and if they develop symptoms, to quickly show up at an emergency room and state their travel history," Gardam said.

Taylor said Canada "pre-shipped" some vaccine to Geneva, but that its donation to the World Health Organization of 800 to 1,000 doses remains in a Canadian government lab.

Some vaccine set aside for Canada

Taylor later said on Power & Politics that Canada has set aside some of the experimental vaccine aside for clinical trials and is also keeping some in Canada "just in case somebody gets into the country who has Ebola."

He said health officials are considering keeping some of the doses in selected hospitals. 

"That vaccine would be used for health-care workers who would be potentially exposed to a patient who has Ebola," Taylor said.

"It's not useful at all for somebody who is sick with Ebola," he said of the experimental vaccine. "But the animal models are suggesting that it's good immediately post-exposure."

Taylor noted that the producer is making more of the vaccine, which is still experimental and has only been given to a few people thus far.

Canada also shipped some vaccine to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

The World Health Organization said Wednesday that a significant number of doses of Ebola virus vaccine won't be available until March 2015 even under the best conditions.

The UN health agency reiterated that Canada has donated 800 vials, which could be good for up to 2,000 doses, depending on the results of dosing data from early stage clinical trials.

WHO is considering the use of two experimental vaccines that have never been used on humans:

  • A vaccine developed at the National Microbiology Laboratory uses a weakened version of a livestock pathogen.
  • Another developed by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GlaxoSmithKline uses a chimpanzee-derived virus.

In West Africa, there are few signs that the Ebola epidemic is being brought under control, WHO said.

As of Sept. 28, the virus is thought to have made 7,178 people sick, mainly in in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, WHO said Wednesday, noting this is likely an underestimate. Of these, 3,338 have died.

Health-care workers are a particular concern — as of Sept. 28, 377 have been infected and 216 have died.

With files from Reuters