Ebola is scary, but don’t panic

As the largest Ebola outbreak in history continues to devastate parts of West Africa, many people here at home are asking if this deadly virus could spread throughout our community as well.

Concerns have risen greatly in the United States since our country’s first confirmed case of Ebola and subsequent death, and most recently with the infection of two health care workers exposed to that first case. Concern and even fear about Ebola is understandable; after all, it is a contagious and deadly disease, but the risk of a serious Ebola outbreak in the United States remains highly unlikely because our country does not share the same vulnerabilities as those parts of West Africa where the virus is rapidly spreading.

As with earlier outbreaks elsewhere in Africa, containment and treatment measures are often hampered by burial traditions, superstition and the poor public health infrastructure. Yet this epidemic is especially devastating because local health officials were unprepared.

In contrast, the public health system and medical professionals in the United States, including San Luis Obispo County, are prepared for Ebola. We know how to stop Ebola’s further spread: thorough case finding; isolation of ill people; contacting people exposed to the ill person; and further isolation of contacts if they develop symptoms. This aggressive strategy will remain the mainstay of staving off additional cases of Ebola in the United States, even if there are additional cases, due to imperfect travel screening or personal protective equipment (PPE) use by health care workers. While our hearts go out to the persons in the U.S. who have contracted this illness in their attempts to provide aid to others, it is important to note that those situations are the exception rather than the rule.

The risk of Ebola reaching San Luis Obispo County is particularly low given our population demographics. We have very limited travel from the regions within Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone that are the epicenter of the current Ebola outbreak. Absent a wide outbreak in the U.S., which remains very improbable, chances are extremely high that Ebola will not reach our county. Risk communication is one of the most difficult aspects of public health practice. Each adverse health outcome is understandably not viewed equally by the general public, especially when dealing with an unfamiliar, even exotic, external threat.

Nonetheless, I will try to provide some numeric perspective: During the past two months there have been 700 cases of illness and two childhood deaths from Enterovirus D68 in the United States; in San Luis Obispo County over the same time frame, fatalities from motor vehicle accidents, pneumonia and heart disease number six, 15 and 51, respectively.Despite our low risk, the Public Health Department and the four local hospitals are preparing to handle a suspected case of Ebola. In fact, our county is more prepared than most for such an event because, with a nuclear power plant in the neighborhood, our local emergency planners regularly coordinate on emergency response drills. Over the years, these drills have taught the Public Health Department and our partner agencies valuable lessons in multi-agency coordination and communication, which are essential skills in responding to a suspected Ebola case. To date, the Public Health Department’s response to this potential threat includes:

  • Communicating with health officials from the CDC, the California Department of Public Health, the Laboratory Response Network and other health departments throughout the state.
  • Disseminating up-to-date information and guidance to local health providers, hospitals, first responders and the public.
  • Providing guidance to health care providers about Ebola’s specialized laboratory specimen collection and transport requirements.
  • Honing surveillance and emergency response skills through staff development and drills.

Additional training is forthcoming in the use of PPE for health care workers and a planned exercise to test response systems for Ebola and like infectious agents.

The public can reduce the risk of getting Ebola and more threatening infectious diseases, such as influenza, by practicing good health habits: Wash your hands, avoid close contact with people who are sick, stay home when you are sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Yes, Ebola is scary, but I hope concerned residents can find some peace knowing that responsive public health and medical professionals are prepared for this and many other potential public health threats.