Hospitals around Puget Sound are well-prepared in the sorts of infection-control measures needed to contain the deadly Ebola virus now spreading in some West African countries, says Dr. Jeff Duchin, chief of infectious disease control for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
Hospitals here, Duchin said, have learned a lot since that scary day in 2001 when he received a tip — a hoax, it later turned out — that a plane carrying a passenger with smallpox was about to land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Those were the days when many worried about bioterrorism, and the incident was a wake-up call. Public-health and hospital leaders quickly decided that all hospitals were going to have to be prepared, Duchin said.
Measures begun over a decade ago have been refined as health officials prepared for other contagious diseases over the years, from SARS to H1N1 and MERS, he said.
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“The reason we want to talk about this today is because there’s been increasing media attention on the escalating outbreak in West Africa and today, the World Health Organization declared this was a public-health emergency,” Duchin said Friday at a news briefing.
“But it’s important people understand that the public-health emergency really is in the area of West Africa, and that the risk for the U.S. population is very, very low, almost zero.”
The incubation period for Ebola is typically from three to 21 days, he said. Patients typically have sudden high fever, severe headaches, vomiting, severe weakness and diarrhea. “It’s not a subtle disease,” he said.
But unlike many more infectious diseases, Ebola is not contagious before symptoms appear, and direct contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of a sick person is necessary to catch it.
Unlike measles or influenza, for example, Ebola is not airborne, he noted.
Even if a traveler with Ebola did come to Seattle, “the risk of that then causing an outbreak or spreading the virus to others is almost zero,” he said.
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, acting head of the University of Washington’s division of allergy and infectious diseases, said Ebola’s spread in Africa was fueled by a lack of standard U.S. infection-control measures, infrastructure, training and supplies.
At Harborview Medical Center, for example, a patient suspected of Ebola infection would be evaluated in a negative-pressure room by providers wearing protective equipment, said Dr. John Lynch, medical director of infection control. “We have Ebola-specific protocols developed at both hospitals and ready for deployment at any time.”
The bottom line about Ebola, said Duchin, is this: “The infection does not transmit readily, it would not transmit readily in our society, and our health-care facilities are very well equipped to take care of this infection without spreading it to others,” he said.