Health professionals: Ebola poses little imminent danger to public

By Josette Keelor

The first confirmed case of the Ebola virus in the United States has concerned Americans, but area health professionals have assured that area residents are not at risk.

Presently it’s not a concern for the general public, said Dr. Charles Devine III, health director of the Lord Fairfax Health District. “You have to have exposure and right now the only place to acquire exposure is in West Africa,” he said.

“There is potential that some of the people that this person in Texas had interactions with, that those people themselves could become ill,” Devine said. However, those who interacted with the Dallas resident have been informed of their risk and health departments are monitoring the situation. The Dallas man recently returned from a visit to the Republic of Liberia in western Africa.

Ebola is spread through bodily fluids such as saliva, and an infected person is contagious only after he or she begins to present symptoms that include a fever greater than 101.5 degrees, abdominal or muscle pain, headache and unexplained bleeding.

But, as Devine pointed out, those symptoms could indicate many other illnesses, and it’s not uncommon to experience symptoms of illness after returning from western Africa.

“Malaria is very high on that list,” he said. Several diseases related to travel might not present symptoms until after travelers return, so anyone traveling to countries with special health considerations should closely monitor symptoms.

Ebola, he said, has a key connection to western Africa, where the current strain of the virus originated, and a very specific window of opportunity.

“If your symptoms are [starting] more than 21 days after visiting West Africa, it’s not Ebola,” Devine said.

“Basically the message is unless you’re traveling to West Africa at this time, there is no danger to people in the U.S.,” he said.

Though unaware of specific plans to contain the virus at area medical facilities, Devine said he’s confident of area hospitals’ ability to isolate patients and control symptoms.

At Winchester Medical Center, physicians are prepared to treat and contain various infectious diseases including tuberculosis and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), said Dr. Jack Potter, medical director of Emergency Services at Valley Health System and emergency department chairman.

The hospital has four discrete rooms with negative airflow systems and a larger pod of rooms that segregate patients and keep them on a separate air handler system that vents outdoors.

“We’re limited,” Potter said. “It’s not like we can do 50 people like that … but we have the ability to protect the other patients.”

Hospital equipment covers everything from facemasks used while treating flu patients to “complete isolation moon suits,” he said.

The rooms have been used to contain various illnesses and to monitor patients recently returning from foreign countries where there’s a chance they brought something back with them.

Warren Memorial Hospital in Front Royal also has isolation rooms, but Carol Weare, public relations manger for Valley Health in Winchester, said patients in Shenandoah and Warren counties exhibiting severe symptoms of infectious disease would be transferred to a larger facility like that in Winchester.

“It just kind of depends on how they come in,” Weare said. An isolation room is also planned for the new facility at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital in Woodstock.

At Project HOPE, based in Millwood, volunteer efforts in Africa have abided by recent recommendations from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President and CEO John P. Howe III stated in an email from the organization.

Programs include helping victims of infectious disease, according to the website http://www.projecthope.org, and staff and medical volunteers are currently in Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Namibia, South Africa and, soon, in Nigeria.

“We will continue to monitor and follow WHO and CDC recommendations while continuing to keep our lifesaving programs abroad operating efficiently,” Howe said. “Project HOPE is following CDC guidelines for reentry into the United States for any staff/volunteers traveling from Ebola affected countries.”

Winchester being so close to Washington, Potter said, “we attract a lot of international travelers and so we are always vigilant on our own.”

That also applies to the handling of medical waste, he said, aware of online reports on Wednesday suggesting community hospitals aren’t prepared to handle waste from Ebola patients.

“We treat all medical waste as being highly infectious and incredibly dangerous,” Potter said. “If we knew we truly had Ebola problems, I think the vigilance would go up another tick or two.”

Epidemiology is a give and take system. Devine said protocol requires hospitals to report their suspicions of Ebola to the health department, and Potter said hospitals rely on direction from the CDC and health department when determining their level of alertness.

Concerning the case in Texas, Devine said, “[It] looks like they’re doing all the right things to control that situation.”

But hand washing, as usual, remains a must, he said.

“The main thing is to provide a barrier between oneself and the person suspected of having the Ebola disease.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com