A serious outbreak

In the last few months, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and World Health Organization and other partners have been actively engaged in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Since the first report surfaced in March, there have been more than 1,700 cases reported and, more than half of these have resulted in death, said Beth Tappy, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department.

This is the largest Ebola outbreak in history and the first in West Africa. No Ebola cases have been transmitted in the United States and the likelihood of this outbreak spreading outside of West Africa is very low, Tappy said.

“It is more likely that the countries surrounding Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and Nigeria may see cases because of the wide geographic spread of this outbreak,” she said.

Still, Dr. Terry Frankovich, M.D., M.P.H., Dickinson-Iron District Health Department Medical Director, said with many non-profit organizations removing staff from affected countries and routine international travel, the Upper Peninsula needs to be prepared for any travelers to those nations who were potentially exposed to the virus.

“I want to stress that unlike many infections which are transmitted from one person to another by breathing in the same air, Ebola is spread only through exposure to the bodily fluids of someone with the disease,” Dr. Frankovich said.

“Even though the risk of Ebola appearing in our area is very low, it’s important that communities are prepared,” he said.

The Dickinson-Iron District Health Department has been communicating with its hospital partners and other organizations to address any concerns that may arise related to the Ebola virus for travelers returning from African nations affected by the virus.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are sharing this information with the community,” Tappy said. “Our intention is to reassure residents that this infection is on our radar and that the safety of the community is, as always, the foremost priority of local public health.”

“Local hospitals have plans in place to quickly isolate and treat anyone who has traveled back from an affected nation, been exposed to the virus, and is showing symptoms of Ebola,” Dr. Frankovich.

“Here in the U.S., it is much easier to isolate and manage patients than in the affected West Africa nations,” he said.

The Dickinson-Iron District Health Department works closely with the state health department, area medical providers and the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to monitor any infectious disease concerns in the region.

Area physicians and medical staff are also being alerted to the need to be aware of any patient returning from the affected region who are manifesting symptoms of the disease.

This is a serious outbreak.

Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, called the Ebola outbreak in West Africa an international public health emergency.

The current wave of cases, which began in March, is the largest and longest in the history of the disease. The World Health Organization issued similar emergency warnings for a swine flu outbreak in 2009 and for polio in May this year.

The death toll is reported to have topped 900 people.

Between Aug. 2 and Aug. 4, a total of 108 new cases as well as 45 deaths were reported from Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization said.

The total number of cases stands at more than 1,700, with a fatality rate of about 50 percent.

Some facts about Ebola:

– Some people have survived Ebola. While the fatality rate for Ebola can be as high as 90 percent, health officials in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone say people have recovered from the virus and the current death rate is about 60 percent. Those who fared best sought immediate medical attention and got supportive care to prevent dehydration even though there is no specific treatment for Ebola itself.

– Ebola can look like other diseases. The early symptoms of an Ebola infection include fever, headache, muscle aches and sore throat. It can be difficult to distinguish between Ebola and malaria, typhoid fever or cholera. Only in later stages do people with Ebola begin bleeding both internally and externally, often through the nose and ears.

– Ebola is only spread through close contact. The Ebola virus is not airborne, so people would have to come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. These include blood, sweat, vomit, feces, urine, saliva or semen – making transmission through casual contact in a public setting unlikely.

– Fear and misinformation. In the three countries, health workers and clinics have come under attack from panicked residents who mistakenly blame foreign doctors and nurses for bringing the virus to remote communities. Family members also have removed sick Ebola patients from hospitals. Government officials have stepped up efforts to isolate patients, educate the public, check travelers and tighten borders to prevent the disease’s spread.