The news tonight about Dr. Craig Spencer, an MSF volunteer who recently returned from caring for Ebola patients in Guinea, is sobering for several reasons. There are many details to come, but I thought I’d post a few quick initial thoughts (or reminders) about how this tragic development should, or shouldn’t, change the way we think about the Ebola virus outbreak:

This outbreak is occurring in West Africa. Not in the US. West Africa. The level of hysteria in the US is directly proportional to the number of Ebola patients on US soil, but we should never forget, even for a minute, that the outbreak continues to rage in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea (where Dr. Spencer acquired the infection). This widely cited Lancet modeling study suggests that 2-8 Ebola infected individuals will board planes monthly during their incubation period. Thus the best way to combat Ebola in the US is to mobilize resources for West Africa.

In the US, those at risk for Ebola are healthcare workers who have cared for Ebola patients (whether here or in West Africa). Not mall-goers, bowlers, subway riders, or those who might have been in an airport terminal on the same day as an asymptomatic Ebola patient. The greatest transmission risk is borne by those who provide direct care for Ebola patients during severe illness, when viral shedding is very high. 

There may be no way to reduce Ebola transmission risk to zero in healthcare settings, given the current state of Personal Protective Equipment technology. Dr. Spencer reported no breaches in the MSF protocols, which are widely recognized as the most stringent (and effective) in use. Healthcare workers have always accepted some risk in provision of healthcare, and Ebola reminds us that the risks can be grave, and that healthcare workers willing to bear these risks are heroic.

This case may make it far more difficult to assemble care teams for suspected or confirmed Ebola patients. Not just because we have yet to determine how Nina Pham, Amber Vinson, Craig Spencer, and several other caregivers were infected, but because this case could result in more stringent protocols regarding self-monitoring and movement restriction (quarantine) for those willing to care for Ebola patients. Healthcare workers who learn they may be required to restrict their movement during the entire time they care for patients (and 21 days thereafter) may be less likely to step forward. 

All eyes now will be on Bellevue. If Dr. Spencer receives all of his care at Bellevue rather than being transferred to one of our four federally-funded and designated biocontainment facilities, the hypothesis that any well-prepared hospital can safely care for an Ebola patient will again be tested.

Photo credits: Facebook; Bryan Smith


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