Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are going through the worst Ebola outbreak in history and health officials believe that it has killed more than 700 people there. Now, for the first time, Ebola has entered the United Sates via two health aid workers who contracted the disease while working in Africa where the Ebola outbreak continues.
Ebola in the U.S.
The first patient landed in the United States on Saturday, August 2, 2014. Dr. Kent Brantly was then flown from Africa to the United States and then transported via ambulance to Emory University Hospital.
The second person, Nancy Whitebol, will return to the U.S. in the coming days.
Many people are questioning the decision to bring the two American aid workers to the United States to be treated. According to the New York Times, Dr. Bruce S. Ribner, an infectious disease specialist at Emory and who will be caring for these patients, said, “The reason we are bringing these patients back to our facility is because we feel they deserve to have the highest level of care offered for their treatment.”
Unfortunately, however, the only treatment is to provide supportive care to keep the patient stable – does bringing these Ebola sufferers home to the U.S. put everyone else at risk?
What is Ebola?
Ebola virus disease (EVD), originally known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a severe, and often times fatal disease in humans. Case fatality can be up to 90 percent – in other words, 90 out of every 100 people who catch Ebola die. EVD outbreaks typically occur in remote villages in Central and West Africa and are transmitted via wild animals (such as fruit bats) to humans.
How Can You Get Ebola?
In addition to catching Ebola via fruit bats and other animals, Ebola spreads between people when they have direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids from someone with the disease. People can contract the disease by indirect contact with items that are contaminated with the fluids, such as needles and medical waste. Burials and funerals can also be a source of transmission, when people have direct contact with the deceased who had the disease. In addition, men who have the Ebola virus can transmit the virus for up to seven weeks in their sperm, even if they recover.
What are Ebola Symptoms?
EVD is a sudden onset of symptoms that include fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, sore throat, and headache. Vomiting, diarrhea, rash, decreased kidney and liver function, and sometimes internal and external bleeding may also occur in some patients. There are no licensed vaccines or treatment for Ebola virus.
So, what do health care providers do when someone has these symptoms? According to Dr. Ribner, “We depend on the body’s defenses to control the virus.” That means health care providers are simply trying to keep Ebola patients comfortable and strong, in hopes that their bodies will be able to control the infection – there are no medicines that will stop the disease.
Working With a Deadly Disease
Emory University Hospital as well as the jet that flew the patients to the United States and the ambulance that transported them to the hospital have taken extreme precautions. Emory University Hospital is one of four hospitals in the United States that is capable of caring for such patients, according to CNN. Workers have volunteered to work on the unit, some who were planning on taking vacation have canceled their plans to be able to care for the two Americans.
The unit at Emory Hospital is well away from the other units at the hospital. Infection control precautions have been put into place to keep the disease from spreading. Some of these precautions include: a sheet of glass to separate the healthy from the ill, communicating to nonmedical people by intercom, negative air pressure rooms, and special protective medical equipment for anyone working with the patient.
While Ebola is a often times deadly disease, the two Americans are in stable conditions, according to CNN. However, this isn’t the case for the more than 1,300 of people in West Africa with the disease.
Although there is no FDA regulated vaccine for Ebola, there is a vaccine in the works, which researchers are testing on primates with “encouraging” results, according to USA Today. The NIH is working with the FDA to fast track the vaccine into a clinical trial this fall. This would include testing on a small sample of humans, and should provide results by January. If the results show that the vaccine is safe and effective, we might see it offered to aid workers in West Africa sometime in 2015.
Ebola Epidemic in the United States?
So – could an Ebola epidemic happen here in the U.S.? Anything is possible with international air travel. However, quarantine is much easier here, making containment more likely here, than in Africa.
The good news is that Ebola does not spread easily and here in the United States, medical care is easily accessible – and medical professionals and public health professionals are more likely to be able to deal with an outbreak swiftly. In West Africa, unfortunately, both medical professionals and supplies are limited.