ebola-crisis-2014

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Boston Nurse Records 'Desperately Sad' Experiences Treating Ebola Patients In Liberia

Workers are next to the body of a woman suspected of dying from Ebola, before they offload her at a gravesite near the Bomi County Ebola clinic, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia. (Abbas Dulleh/AP)

Workers are next to the body of a woman suspected of dying from Ebola, before they offload her at a gravesite near the Bomi County Ebola clinic, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia. (Abbas Dulleh/AP)

A growing number of doctors, nurses and public health specialists across the U.S. are putting their lives on hold and heading to Ebola-ravaged regions of West Africa. Today, and in the months to come, we bring you the story of one man who is on the ground in Liberia.

John Welch, 33, is a nurse anesthetist at Boston Children’s Hospital, and works with Partners in Health (PIH) in Haiti. At least that was his life before he opened an email from the organization in late September. It was a call for volunteers and support as PIH moved into Liberia and Sierra Leone to try and stop Ebola’s spread. Welch told a supervisor he’d be happy to help if needed.

That decision, says Welch, “was about being on the right side of history. I think I would have trouble looking back, knowing that I had an opportunity, and had not stepped up.”

Welch meets sister Heidi Christman and niece Lydia in Columbus, Ohio, to explain why he's going to Liberia. (Courtesy of John Welch)

Welch meets sister Heidi Christman and niece Lydia in Columbus, Ohio, to explain why he’s going to Liberia. (Courtesy of John Welch)

Calming worried friends and family members was not so easy.

“How does your mother feel?” asks Lindsay Waller, an old friend and fellow anesthetist, who helps Welch prepare to discuss the decision with his family.

She’s upset and worried, Welch says, but “I am who I am because she’s my mother. [My parents] taught me these feelings of altruism and taking care of the people around you and helping out.”

The next day, on a quick trip from Boston to Columbus, Ohio, Welch makes a pitch he knows will resonate with his mother, aunt and sister: 70 percent of deaths from Ebola are women, the caregivers.

He asks his family to sit with him and watch a “Frontline” episode on Ebola. Fear and pain in the faces of patients with Ebola made the point for Welch.

“At first, I wanted to just say, ‘No, don’t go, it’s too dangerous,’ ” says Heidi Christman, Welch’s sister. But then, in the video, Christman says she saw “the brothers and sisters, friends and family that have been lost because of Ebola. And it made me realize that it’s not about me or my fears. It’s about helping these people. They deserve people like my brother.”

Her brother flew to Alabama for a CDC Ebola treatment training and in mid-October, three weeks after Welch said, “I’m in,” he was on his way to Liberia.

It wasn’t an easy journey. There are very few flights in and out of Liberia these days. Welch had several cancellations, spent an extra day in Casablanca, and his luggage was lost in transit.

When he finally lands in Liberia, Welch must take his temperature and wash his hands in chlorine, something he’ll get used to doing at least a dozen times a day. On the drive into Monrovia, a building, all lit up, stands out from a distance. Welch realizes it’s the large Doctors Without Borders Ebola Treatment Unit that he’s read about and seen in pictures. Suddenly, his assignments feels real.

After a few hours sleep, Welch leaves Monrovia and heads inland to a clinic in rural Bong County run by the International Medical Core. Welch is here to learn what it will take for PIH to set up a similar Ebola Treatment Unit in another rural county with few roads, power lines and little running water.

Continue reading

Expert Opinion: Travel Bans And Quarantines For Ebola Could Backfire

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at Bellevue Hospital to discuss Craig Spencer, a Doctors Without Borders physician who tested positive for the Ebola virus last week in New York City. Along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Cuomo announced a mandatory Ebola quarantine for health workers returning from treating patients in West Africa. (John Minchillo/AP)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at Bellevue Hospital to discuss Craig Spencer, a Doctors Without Borders physician who tested positive for the Ebola virus last week in New York City. Along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Cuomo announced a mandatory Ebola quarantine for health workers returning from treating patients in West Africa. (John Minchillo/AP)

By Richard Knox

The United States has entered a new phase in its response to Ebola. Call it “officially sanctioned panic.”

Governors from both parties — N.J. Gov. Chris Christie and N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo — declared over the weekend that even symptom-free health care volunteers coming home from Ebola duty in West Africa will be considered infected (and infectious) until they prove otherwise — by not falling ill for three weeks after their return.

Three out of four Americans want to seal the nation’s borders against travelers from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa. Republican members of Congress are demanding it.

But experts say mandatory quarantine of health workers and travel bans are unnecessary and could cripple the global fight against Ebola.

“The only way to buy an insurance policy is to defeat the disease in West Africa.”

– Prof. Alessandro Vespignani

Against this backdrop, I had a long conversation this past weekend with Prof. Alessandro Vespignani. He’s a Northeastern University expert on how humans behave in the face of disease threats. The main takeaways: The key to defeating the outbreak is to get health care workers to West Africa and back, so to the extent a travel ban or quarantines impede that flow, they will be dangerously counter-productive. And travel is so hard to control fully that bans do little to stem the spread of disease anyway.

Vespignani is spending a lot of time these days consulting with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization on how the Ebola situation could evolve over the coming months.

He’s thinking some ominous thoughts, which he says reflect the views of U.S. and international health officials that he talks to. But the scenarios they worry about are very different from those that preoccupy many politicians and voters. Politicians worry more about the small, containable immediate threat to Americans of occasional imported cases than the longer-term and potentially catastrophic Ebola scenario that could affect the whole world — in other words, an Ebola pandemic.

Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

RK: Your group published a paper the other day in the journal Eurosurveillance that would seem counter-intuitive to many Americans. You say that imposing a ban on travelers from Ebola-affected countries won’t do much to prevent importation of the virus to the United States. Why is that?

Vespignani: People think if you have a travel ban everybody from those countries will be kept out. It’s not like that.

It’s important to know that we don’t have direct flights from West Africa. So a travel ban has to be coordinated internationally. There are a lot of people with two passports (whose country of origin can’t be easily tracked). People would try to circumvent the travel ban, and they wouldn’t be trackable — that’s one of the most dangerous things.

You can stop 95 percent of travelers from a country, but it’s very difficult to do 100 percent. And even a 90 or 95 percent travel ban is going to delay the arrival of Ebola (in the U.S.) by only about two months. It’s only buying time.

Already there is almost an 80 percent reduction in travel to the U.S. from that region, so we have already bought some time — about four to five weeks.

So what’s the practical effect of that delay? How much would a travel ban reduce Americans’ risk? Continue reading

Reality Check: How People Catch Ebola, And How They Don’t

Dr. Elke Muhlberger (Courtesy of Kalman Zabarsky for BU Photography)

Dr. Elke Muhlberger (Courtesy of Kalman Zabarsky for BU Photography)

It’s confusing. You hear that Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan was so contagious that two Dallas nurses in protective gear caught the virus. But then you hear, in more recent days, that apparently nobody else did, including the inner circle who lived with him and cared for him. The CDC announced today that all of Mr. Duncan’s “community contacts” have completed their 21-day monitoring period without developing Ebola.

How to understand that? And how to address alarmists’ claims that for the nurses and so many West Africans to have caught Ebola, it must have gone “airborne”?

I turned to Dr. Elke Muhlberger, an Ebola expert long intimate with the virus — through more than 20 years of Ebola research that included two pregnancies. (I must say I find this the ultimate antidote for the fear generated by the nurses’ infections: A researcher so confident in the power of taking the right precautions that she had no fear — and rightly so, it turned out — for her babies-to-be.)

Dr. Muhlberger is an associate professor of micriobiology at Boston University and director of the Biomolecule Production Core at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (widely referred to as the NEIDL, pronounced “needle”) at Boston University. Our conversation, lightly edited:

Is it really true you worked on Ebola through two pregnancies?

Yes, but in the proper protective gear. That makes a huge difference, if you’re protected, if you know how to protect yourself, and that is the case in a Biosafety Level 4 lab, of course. If you compare the protective gear we’re wearing in a Biosafety Level 4 lab and the gear they’re wearing in West Africa now treating patients, it’s like comparing a stainless steel vault to a cardboard box.

But on the other hand, if you look at the nurses in Dallas, you say, ‘How did they get infected?’ It makes you worry that maybe protective gear isn’t good enough — but you’re proof of the opposite.

A Biosafety Level 4 lab is such a high-end lab, it is not possible to use protective gear like that in every hospital in the U.S.

Could you please lay out a brief primer on the biology of how Ebola is transmitted?

We know from previous outbreaks, and also from the current outbreak, that Ebola is transmitted by having very close contact to infected patients. So we know that it is transmitted by bodily fluids, which include blood, first of all — because the amount of virus in the blood is very, very high, especially at late stages of infection — but it’s also spread by vomit, by sputum, by feces, by urine and by other bodily fluids.

The reason for that is that at late stages of infection, the Ebola virus affects almost all our organs — it causes a systemic infection. One main organ targeted by Ebola virus is the liver, and that could be one of the reasons that we see these very high concentrations of viral particles in the blood. But I would like to emphasize that that occurs late in infection.

Early infection is the other way around. The primary targets — the first cells that come in contact with Ebola virus and get infected — are cells that are part of our immune system. And these cells most likely spread the virus throughout our body. But there are not so many cells infected at the very beginning of the infection, which might be the reason why Ebola virus patients do not spread virus at the very beginning of infection. And that’s why it’s safe to have contact with these patients, because the viral titers in their blood are so low that we cannot even detect them with methods like PCR, which is one of the methods we use to diagnose Ebola virus.

Is a virus only contagious when it reaches a certain level of “titer” or load? Continue reading

Ebola Tipping Point? Dispelling Myths And, Possibly, Less Hysteria Over Virus

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

Has the national hysteria over Ebola peaked? Who knows. Maybe. There seem to be fewer front page headlines screaming about it; a new national poll finds most Americans are “positive” about the response by public health authorities; and today’s news is that more than 40 Dallas residents (all who had been in contact with the Liberian man who died of Ebola) were declared virus-free.

Still, education is the antidote to hysteria, so it’s worth reiterating some of the facts. Many of them can be found in this must-read commentary in the London Review of Books by Paul Farmer, the rock star Harvard infectious disease doctor and leading advocate for global health equity in the world’s most impoverished regions. Farmer, who is also a co-founder of the Boston non-profit Partners in Health, writes that despite some of the truly scary aspects of the virus, an Ebola diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence:

The Ebola virus is terrifying because it infects most of those who care for the afflicted and kills most of those who fall ill: at least, that’s the received wisdom. But it isn’t clear that the received wisdom is right….

…the fact is that weak health systems, not unprecedented virulence or a previously unknown mode of transmission, are to blame for Ebola’s rapid spread. Weak health systems are also to blame for the high case-fatality rates in the current pandemic, which is caused by the Zaire strain of the virus. The obverse of this fact – and it is a fact – is the welcome news that the spread of the disease can be stopped by linking better infection control (to protect the uninfected) to improved clinical care (to save the afflicted). An Ebola diagnosis need not be a death sentence. Here’s my assertion as an infectious disease specialist: if patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care – including fluid resuscitation, electrolyte replacement and blood products – the great majority, as many as 90 per cent, should survive.

And he adds this:

I’ve been asked more than once what the formula for effective action against Ebola might be. It’s often those reluctant to invest in a comprehensive model of prevention and care for the poor who ask for ready-made solutions. What’s the ‘model’ or the ‘minimum basic package’? What are the ‘metrics’ to evaluate ‘cost-effectiveness’? The desire for simple solutions and for proof of a high ‘return on investment’ will be encountered by anyone aiming to deliver comprehensive services (which will necessarily include both prevention and care, all too often pitted against each other) to the poor. Anyone whose metrics or proof are judged wanting is likely to receive a cool reception, even though the Ebola crisis should serve as an object lesson and rebuke to those who tolerate anaemic state funding of, or even cutbacks in, public health and healthcare delivery. Without staff, stuff, space and systems, nothing can be done.

If you want to become more educated on Ebola and find out what you can do to support the global effort, Partners In Health/Engage and Harvard are sponsoring an Ebola teach-in Wednesday night in Cambridge with a panel of practitioners and public health experts. Continue reading

Opinion: Why America’s Ebola Fears Are Dangerously Misplaced

Cpl. Zachary Wicker demonstrated the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

Cpl. Zachary Wicker demonstrated the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

By Richard Knox

At the memorial service last weekend for the only person to have died of Ebola on American soil, the Liberian clergyman who eulogized his countryman Thomas Eric Duncan posed a question we all should be thinking hard about right now.

“Where did Ebola come from to destroy people — to set behind people who were already behind?” Methodist Bishop Arthur F. Kulah wondered.

Here’s the reality: Until the world (and especially the United States of America) refocus on the “people who were already behind” in this battle of virus-versus-humanity, no one can rest easy.

Ebola is an animal virus that has sporadically caused local human outbreaks in Africa for at least 38 years. But now it has crossed into people who live in densely populated African nations with barely functioning health systems and daily jet connections to the rest of the planet.

“It’s like you’re in your room and the house is on fire, and your approach is to put wet towels under the door.”

– World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim

This is entirely predictable, as scientists who watch emerging diseases have long known. They just didn’t know which virus would be the next to terrorize the world. (SARS and HIV showed how it can happen, remember?)

Those of us who, like me, report on global public health have a sense of inevitability as we watch the Ebola crisis unfold. We always knew it would mostly affect, as Bishop Kulah so aptly puts it, “people who were already behind.”

And we knew the people least affected by this scourge — privileged denizens of wealthier countries — would overreact out of misplaced fear for themselves, rather than a reasoned and compassionate understanding about what needs to be done.

So we see the freaked-out, wall-to-wall, feedback-loop media coverage we’re experiencing now. Schools closing down in Ohio for completely unnecessary disinfection. Recriminations against hapless health workers who suddenly find themselves dealing with an exotic new threat. Continue reading

Don’t Worry, Be Rational: Why Extreme Fear Of Ebola Is Bad For Your Health

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Let’s face it, Ebola is scary. My kids are scared. The moms at school are talking about giving their children extra multi-vitamins to boost their immune systems in a desperate attempt to do something, anything, to protect their families. But we live in Boston and there are no cases here — yet. Still, that “yet” can make us crazy.

So, in a crisis, who do you call for comfort? The level-headed risk perception consultant: David Ropeik, who spoke with me briefly today about why such intense, prolonged worry and anxiety can backfire, make your body weaker and perhaps even damage your health:

Here, edited, is our short interview:

RZ: So, why is being scared of Ebola bad for your health?

DR: The health ramifications of this are profound. When we worry, that, biologically, is stress — that’s a mini fight-or-flight response going on in the body. When stress persists for more than several days (short-term stress is not the problems), it becomes damaging to our health. Chronic stress raises our blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems; it suppresses our immune system and makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases or get sicker from them if we do. It interferes with neurotransmitters associated with mood, and it is strongly associated with clinical depression. Chronic stress interferes with digestion and memory and depresses fertility and bone growth (slows it down).

[The negative effects of chronic stress are widely reported, but Ropeik cites the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” by the biologist Robert Sapolsky, as a key source here.]

So you think people are overreacting and we’re moving into some kind of widespread nation-wide chronic stress phenomenon here?

We’re on the cusp. It’s like what the fear of SARS did to people in Canada — it freaked [them] out for weeks: “Here it comes again,” is what they’re saying.

How do you see all this evolving?

In the last day and a half the criticism of how health officials have handled things and the mistakes they made in Dallas, real as those mistakes are, have become a focus, and it’s now starting to undermine trust in our health care system.

In a crisis, trust is the pivotal factor for how worried people are. Continue reading

Harvard Poll On Ebola Risk Finds Public Dazed And Very Confused

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

By Richard Knox

Americans are seriously confused about how Ebola spreads. And it’s no wonder.

A new national poll from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans think someone can catch Ebola if an infected person sneezes or coughs on them.

Not so, according to all health authorities and 38 years of research on this virus. But maybe people can’t be blamed for thinking Ebola can be spread through the air as they see powerful images day after day of health workers clad in head-to-toe protective coverings and face masks.

And there’s little to no possibility that Ebola will mutate into a virus easily spread by aerosol droplets, like influenza or SARS, for reasons that Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out in The Washington Post.

Similarly, all the attention on the imported Ebola case of a Liberian man in Dallas and subsequent infection of two of his nurses (so far) is apparently leading many Americans to overestimate their risk of getting the virus.

In contrast, the great majority (80 percent) think they’d survive Ebola if they got immediate care. That’s probably right — though no sure thing.

(Courtesy of Harvard School of Public Health)

(Courtesy of Harvard School of Public Health)

The Harvard poll, conducted between last Wednesday and Sunday, finds that a little over half of Americans worry there will be a large outbreak of Ebola in this country over the coming year.

More than a third worry they or someone in their immediate family will get Ebola. Continue reading

For Hospitals And Clinics: Insurance To Protect Against Losses From Ebola

A Boston-based insurance broker is rolling out a new policy for Ebola-related losses at hospitals and clinics across the country.

A Braintree cop places police tape around a Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates sign on Sunday. A patient there complained of Ebola-like symptoms, briefly closing the center. (Steven Senne/AP)

A Braintree cop places police tape around a Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates sign on Sunday. A patient there complained of Ebola-like symptoms, briefly closing the center. (Steven Senne/AP)

How much money might hospitals lose during an Ebola-related quarantine? And will patients use hospitals that treat the virus? Phil Edmundson at William Gallagher Associates developed Ebola insurance to address these risks.

“People may choose to put off their health care, or to get it at an alternative facility, if they feel there’s a reason to suspect Ebola in a given clinic or hospital,” Edmundson said.

Ebola policies could run half a million dollars or more for large hospitals. They will not cover the cost of closing off wards, training staff or overtime.

Other insurers are offering similar coverage for theaters, restaurants, hotels and other public spaces that may have to close if they have a customer with Ebola.

“All Massachusetts hospitals have general insurance policies and liability policies in place for extreme events,” the Massachusetts Hospital Association said in a statement.

The group said it’s aware that hospitals in the state may be evaluating whether “additional insurance for Ebola-specific events” is necessary.

More Coverage:

8 Things You Need To Know About Ebola

Cpl. Zachary Wicker shows the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. About 500 Fort Bliss soldiers are preparing for deployment to West Africa where they will provide support in a military effort to contain the Ebola outbreak. /Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

Cpl. Zachary Wicker demonstrated the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

Ebola has been dominating the headlines lately, raising concern about the disease potentially spreading to Massachusetts. And after two recent Ebola scares in Boston, local authorities are also trying to reassure the public.

Here’s what you need to know about Ebola:

Continue reading