As they should, the following lessons are rooted in science and medicine, rather than politics and hysteria, as experienced from this epic episode in our nation's history.
First, new diseases emerge every day in the world; and, just in the last decade, the United States has experienced the arrival of West Nile Virus, Chikungunya and Dengue, as well as Ebola.
New diseases, once appearing here, will continue to be seen in the future. While additional cases will most likely be carried into the country by travelers, the importance of being immunized, taking effective disease-prevention measures and maintaining vigilance are critical steps in blocking disease transmission.
Although Ebola is a deadly disease, it is not highly contagious. For an infection to occur, one needs to be in physical contact with a sick person and get his or her blood, feces or vomit on the skin. Direct handling of contaminated animals is also a suspected pathway.
Signs of Ebola include fever and symptoms such as severe headache, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain or unexplained bleeding or bruising.
This virus requires direct skin contact for transmission. It does not infect through the air, like the flu or measles.
Therefore, if you are not a health worker or in direct physical contact (such as a family member) with someone who has Ebola, you are not at risk of getting it.
Early identification and treatment of an infected person prevents the individual from exposing others to the organism – and from spreading it.
A 21-day incubation period has been established for this infection. As such, restrictions for the suspected patient require quarantine and other critical public health-control measures, including limitations on travel, reduced exposure in public settings and frequent monitoring of individual health indicators (fever and related medical symptoms). Appropriate identification, monitoring and tracking of high-risk contacts provide for assurance that infected parties do not go unchecked into the community at large.
With that said, there is more to do in our future efforts to control the virus. To date, one can count on one hand the number of studies that address the “shelf-life” of this organism. Preliminary findings indicate that the virus can last for only a few minutes outside the body. We also know that common household bleach and disinfectants can kill the virus. What remains unclear are answers to questions such as: “How much bleach does the job?” “For how long a contact period?” “What is the Ebola survival time if the organism is contained in human waste?” and “What is the correlation between survival and transmission risk from waste or waste water?”
In response to the threat just encountered, a flurry of new research is in the making. In the United States, several new studies have been commissioned, or are just starting, that target these questions accordingly.
Meanwhile, we need to follow sound public-health practices and preventive procedures in order to protect our health and well-being.
For the most part, a final lesson learned is that in concert with the above tenets, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention procedures and proper epidemiological practices, a serious Ebola outbreak has been prevented in the United States. Conversely, it is extremely unfortunate that nearly 10,000 cases have occurred in the West Africa epidemic by not being able to adhere to these important disease-control protocols.
Leon F. Vinci is the president and chief executive officer of Health Promotion Consultants, a former director of public health and epidemiologist for the San Juan Basin Health Department, an officer with the American Public Health Association and a consultant to the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. Reach him at Lv6@aol.com or (913) 535-3091.