Ebola: Putting it in Perspective

Oct. 27, 2014:


By Brooke Johnson

During a week when concerns about the spread of Ebola continue to dominate newscasts and headlines across the country, a panel of DOs convened during OMED for an educational session focused on preparing for and responding to the infectious disease.

"If a patient with symptoms of Ebola showed up at your practice or hospital, would you know how to screen them?" asked Jerry Blackburn, DO, an infectious diseases specialist from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who led the discussion. "As long as the outbreak in West Africa continues, there will be a constant possibility that a patient with Ebola could present with symptoms in the U.S. and a constant possibility that you could somehow be involved with that patient."

Because physicians, nurses and other health care professionals are the ones most likely to come in contact with the bodily fluids that spread the virus, Dr. Blackburn said they represent the population most at risk. "In West Africa, and particularly in the U.S., this is a disease of health care workers," he said.

'A Major Outbreak Here is Unlikely'

Despite the severity of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, panelists stressed the importance of placing the risk for a U.S. outbreak into context. Robert Orenstein, DO, an infectious diseases specialist with Mayo Clinic and Editor in Chief of The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, reminded audience members of the deadly SARS outbreak that spread through China and Canada in 2003. "That disease was much more deadly and was contained solely through infection control," he said.

Noting that only one person has died in the U.S. from the effects of Ebola, Dr. Blackburn pointed out that many of the conditions contributing to the spread of the virus in West Africa do not exist here. "This is truly a disaster in West Africa," he said. "But a major outbreak here is unlikely."

However, experts agreed that until the infection in West Africa is controlled, Ebola will continue to pose a great risk within the global health community. "Poverty is the number one reason the spread of Ebola has exploded in West Africa," said Capt. Ha Cam Tang, DO, a family physician in Tuba City, Arizona. "Until we address the poverty, we will not reverse the tide."

According to Dr. Blackburn, conditions in West Africa have been exacerbated by the lack of a public health infrastructure and inadequate medical capabilities and resources. "The mortality rate could be reduced dramatically with optimal medical care, including hydration and electrolyte replacement, " he said.

Combatting the Fear

Although the risk of a U.S. outbreak is low, panelists noted that the media frenzy surrounding Ebola will likely continue to heighten panic among patients and the public at large. "We have the ability to control this infection," Dr. Orenstein said. "What we don't have the ability to control is the fear."

Despite the fact that handling of the first reported Ebola cases in Texas did little to quell fears about the potential for an outbreak in the U.S., Dr. Orenstein stressed that there is no cause for panic at this time. "We know how this spreads and we know how to stop it," he said. "We all need to work toward doing that."

This session was offered jointly by the AOA and ACOFP.


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