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Infectious disease experts: Communication key to containing Ebola virus

Keeping Ebola from blossoming into a full-blown North American outbreak will demand vigilance and open communication from doctors, health agencies and the general public, infectious disease experts warn.

“The reality is that we don’t always do as good a job as we should, for a hundred different reasons,” said Dr. Gus Geraci, consulting chief medical officer at the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

He said “a crisis of confidence” menaces the United States medical system if health workers fail to contain the deadly virus that an airline passenger carried last month from West Africa to Texas.

It’s essential for government agencies and doctors to be honest with the public about Ebola so everyone understands the risks, Geraci said.

Clinicians must ask about travel histories — and any contact with West Africa visitors — when emergency patients show flu-like symptoms, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the UPMC Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

That could help identify and isolate any probable Ebola cases more quickly, she said.

Simply cutting off travel to and from West Africa could worsen short-term conditions there while heightening longer-term dangers to the United States and other countries, Nuzzo said.

Doctors agree the responsibility extends to people who show symptoms after traveling in West Africa or making contact with others who have done so. People should seek medical attention and notify health authorities when they start feeling sick, they said.

“Patients have to be honest,” Geraci said. “If you help transport a dying person with Ebola, man, you’ve got to tell people after that if you’re sick.”

Ebola patients become contagious when symptoms appear — typically two to 21 days after infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids, although saliva or mucus released in coughs or sneezes can transmit the disease if the fluids reach another person’s eyes, nose or mouth, the CDC advises.

The virus can remain contagious for several days at room temperature if contaminated surfaces or materials are not disinfected with household bleach or other cleaners.

That makes it especially vital for public health agencies to find and watch people who might have had contact with Ebola patients, doctors said. They said quarantining those at risk is essential to outbreak prevention.

“I think it’s critical people understand this: Just being from Africa does not put you at risk for Ebola,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, the Allegheny County Health Department director.

She said Pittsburgh hospitals understand protocols for Ebola monitoring, which include a standard checklist supplied through the CDC for patients who could be at risk.

No patients in Pennsylvania were tested for Ebola as of late last week, according to the state Department of Health.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media.


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