Ebola: What Is There To Learn?

By Nancy Truscott, Parish Nurse

Posted on October 1, 2014

There is no question the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has riveted us to the news of the illness outpacing the world’s response so far. We read of fear, panic, mistrust of the weak health care system and great loss to thousands of families affected.

We have learned the virus is spread through sweat, blood, saliva and other bodily fluids with the patient being most infectious at the end of life and before burial. We are told someone infected might not show symptoms for twenty one days and yet be infectious already.

We have learned the virus is not airborne, so far, and it is a virus that affects the gastrointestinal tract. The symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever leading to dehydration and kidney failure. There are other diseases in Africa that have similar symptoms, like malaria and lassa fever for example. So far we understand 50 per cent of the patients with Ebola survive and go on to develop resistance in spite of the lack of resources. Patients being discharged from hospitals are boosting the morale of care providers and the local community.

Reports suggest African patients are not getting the care they need from health care providers, nor are they getting intravenous rehydration to prevent kidney failure for a number of reasons. There is a lack of medical supplies, hospital beds, care providers, infrastructure, trust and time.

With the spread of Ebola outstripping our response, we in the developed countries are wondering how we will cope when Ebola reaches our shores. Fear has certainly arrived.

Remember SARS in 2003? We didn’t know what it was. At first we thought it was community-acquired pneumonia, but it wasn’t the usual pneumonia we had seen. I was at Scarborough Grace hospital during SARS and the hospital had to close down because eighty staff had contracted SARS. We have learned some lessons since then.

So what do we have to learn now about our threat of Ebola? We need to calm ourselves. We do have a public health system that is prepared for the appearance of Ebola. We know how to trace contacts who need to be checked and followed, maybe even quarantined. So far, we do not need to worry about the virus being airborne. That is a huge difference from SARS. Plus, the world knows this Ebola virus. It has been around since the mid-seventies. Above all else, we have the technical know-how to treat the symptoms of Ebola. Plus we practice “universal precautions” with every ill person who presents to a hospital or a doctor’s office. Infection control in 2014 is a quantum leap from where we were in 2003.

My question is this: What would the prognosis be for a patient with Ebola in our hospitals? I would venture to say the prognosis would be much better. No one is asking that question. The answer could go a long way to lessening fear.

If the developed countries can avoid being paralyzed with fear, then we can focus on devoting energy, funds and time to make a real difference where we are needed now.