Ever since the first American with Ebola was transported back to the United States for treatment, fear of the devastating disease has been spreading like wildfire. And, with recent mistakes in Texas that led to two nurses getting infected, that fear is increasing — even verging on hysteria for some.
Don’t get me wrong. Concern is understandable, and even healthy ... in small doses. But there is no cause for mass panic about an outbreak hitting the U.S., and the number of myths being circulated are not doing anyone any favors.
So let’s look at some facts. Ebola is not airborne. The only way to contract the virus is by coming into direct contact with the bodily fluid — such as vomit, blood, urine or feces — of someone who is both infected and showing symptoms. The chances of that happening to the average person in the U.S. is pretty infinitesimal.
Health care workers do face a slightly elevated risk, but again, the odds are fairly small. Thus far, the only Americans to have contracted the infection on U.S. soil are two Texas nurses, Amber Joy Vinson and Nina Pham — both of whom spent days with Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan as his condition deteriorated.
And there were some obvious flaws in how Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and its workers responded. When Duncan first came to the Dallas hospital Sept. 25, complaining of abdominal pain and a fever, the Liberian man told the nurse he had traveled to the U.S. from Africa. Still, he was sent home. Three days later he returned and was placed in isolation. It was another three days before Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was during those three days that workers were at highest risk of contracting the disease. Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear that those treating Duncan were wearing hazmat suits during that time. The Associated Press reports that “medical records indicate that the workers wore protective equipment, including gowns, gloves and face shields during that time. The first mention in the records that they wore hazmat suits was on Sept. 30.”
CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden has said a “breach in protocol” led to Pham being infected, although he didn’t elaborate. Perhaps it was the lack of hazmat suits early on, although, while it may seem counterintuitive, it may also have been that the nurses were wearing too much protective gear — something that is a clear violation of CDC protocol.
During a press conference Wednesday, Frieden said, “When we reviewed the records for the first several days of the patient’s stay, before he was diagnosed, we see a lot of variability in the use of personal protective equipment, and when our people arrived the same day that the patient was diagnosed, we noted, for example, that some health care workers were putting on three or four layers of protective equipment in the belief that this would be more protective.
“We certainly understand the fear and the anxiety that is normal and understand it ... These are good, dedicated people who worried about themselves and their families. They were trying to protect themselves better. But by putting on more layers of gloves or other protective clothing, it becomes harder to put them on and take them off. The risk of contamination in the process of taking these gloves off gets much higher. That is true for several areas of the body.”
I realize that the natural reaction is to add extra layers — I’ve even double-gloved a time or two myself while performing a particularly distasteful cleaning chore around the house. Yet when it comes to treating a deadly virus such as Ebola in a professional medical setting, one would expect the facility would have trained its employees about proper protocols to avoid those types of mistakes, and to insist those are followed from the moment something such as Ebola is even suspected.
Pham and Vinson have both been moved to specialized biocontainment facilities, but health officials continue to stress that any hospital should be able to care for patients with Ebola and, assuming workers practice proper protocols, they should be relatively safe — at least in a place with modern medical care.
There have been numerous Ebola outbreaks in Africa over the past 40 years, and experts say the reason this outbreak has gotten so bad is that many patients aren’t able to get medical care.
We are able to get that here, and the fact of the matter is that while Ebola is new and scary for those of us in the U.S., it isn’t even close to the biggest health threat facing our country these days.
Consider this: The flu kills thousands of Americans each flu season — about 150 a day. Cardiovascular diseases claim 2,200 American lives every day — adding up to about 800,000 per year.
It’s good to be educated about any health risk, and I hope that the new focus on Ebola will finally lead to answers that might help the West African countries that have been combating this horrible disease at least curb what is no doubt an epidemic there, or even cure it altogether. But it’s not time to push the Ebola panic button in the U.S. just yet.
Amy Gehrt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/AmyGehrt.