The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been very much in the news for the past several months.
In the United States, there have been only four cases and one death. Ebola was first discovered in 1976 and over 20 outbreaks have occurred in Africa since that time. The current outbreak is the largest in history.
Fortunately, we know a lot about the Ebola virus – how it is transmitted and how infection can be prevented. Ebola infection occurs when the body fluids of someone with the disease enters a person’s body through their eyes, nose, mouth or through a break in the skin.
The virus incubates in the body, usually causing symptoms 8-10 days after initial exposure.
The first symptom usually is a fever. Levels of the virus are very low in the body when symptoms first develop and an infected person is minimally contagious.
As the infection progresses, the amount of virus soars to extraordinary levels (billions of virus particles in each teaspoon of blood or body fluid) and produce a life-threatening infection characterized by dramatic vomiting and diarrhea. At the peak of infection the virus gets into all body fluids, including tears, saliva and sweat requiring very stringent infection control precautions.
At present, the Ebola outbreak has been successfully contained to three countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Travel to and from these countries is highly restricted and all travelers are being monitored for 21 days after departure from the outbreak zone.
In addition, U.S. health care providers have been alerted to ask all patients with fevers and Ebola-like symptoms about their travel history.
In the highly unlikely event they have traveled to West Africa in the past three weeks, they would be put into special isolation while being further evaluated. All hospital and health care workers are trained in the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and these special isolation precautions.
In recent weeks, Olympic Medical Center and Forks Community Hospital staff have been reviewing and practicing their PPE protocols.
The risk of being exposed to Ebola in the United States is infinitesimally small.
If the West African Ebola outbreak is not successfully contained, this risk could increase in the future. The heroic volunteer health care workers who are working on the front lines of the outbreak are being carefully monitored when they return to the U.S.
Their efforts are absolutely essential to deal with the problem at its source.
It is not really possible for an Ebola outbreak to occur in the United States, largely due to the fact that the disease is contagious only when a person is seriously ill. It is not spread through the air nor is it spread by food or water.
In addition to fighting this disease, we also have to combat the fear and misinformation that accompanies it.
Our current system is well prepared to prevent the spread of Ebola to the United States.
Ebola is not something to be afraid of – it is something to be informed about, including the aggressive national, state and local measures that are in place to prevent it.
Thomas Locke, MD, MPH, is the Clallam County Health Officer.