Ebola Outbreak Underscores the Benefits of Preparedness

Paul Biddinger, MDBy Dr. Paul Biddinger

The Ebola outbreak currently befalling several West African countries is the most serious outbreak to date.

The outbreak has claimed more than 11,000 lives,* has yet to be contained, and has certainly generated much anxiety, especially among health care workers. While there is no doubt that the Ebola outbreak is serious, it is also important to know the facts about the disease in order keep the threat from Ebola in perspective.

Experts agree that Ebola is not likely to become a pandemic.  In contrast to other viruses such as influenza, SARS and MERS, Ebola is spread only through direct contact with the blood or body fluids from an infected person or animal, not through the air.

Additionally, the virus is only transmitted when patients are symptomatic, making control of the virus more manageable. Unfortunately, the current outbreak is happening in some of the poorest countries in the world with the fewest number of doctors, and in cities with much larger concentrations of people than in previous occurrences, which has made the current situation very difficult to control.

It is very important that clinicians know what to look for and how to manage the virus. Since the initial symptoms are nonspecific, it is essential to obtain a detailed travel history from all patients and additionally ask about potential exposures to infected persons or animals. Early recognition that a patient may be infected with Ebola is critical in order to implement appropriate isolation and personal protective measures.

Understandably, there has been confusion about which facilities can care for patients who may be infected with Ebola. In the modern world, a patient who has been infected with Ebola could present to any hospital.

Therefore, all hospitals must be prepared to recognize potential suspect cases, isolate patients, and teach staff how to properly don and doff personal protective equipment.  Because lab testing and other issues may be complex, hospitals should review the available CDC guidance on how hospitals can safely manage patients with Ebola.

The Ebola epidemic underscores that preparedness efforts are needed every day, and are crucial to responding to any threat to the public health system. The best thing we can do is use this opportunity to review our infection-control measures, strengthen our capacity for detecting and managing infectious disease, and continue to engage the community in proper prevention and containment practices.

* As of May 30, 2015

Paul Biddinger, MD, is chair of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Committee on Preparedness. He is vice chairman for Emergency Preparedness in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Exercise Program at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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