Are we ready for Ebola?

Photo courtesy of Leslie Lobel
Photo courtesy of Leslie Lobel

Inova Fairfax and Medstar Georgetown University hospitals, like so many others nationwide, are educating employees and reviewing protocols in the unlikely event that a person infected with Ebola enters their doors.

In the past few weeks, two patients at Inova were placed in isolation for 24 hours as a precaution after it was learned they both had visited West Africa, the scene of more than 1,700 Ebola cases since March of this year, and they both were running fevers. It turned out that one patient had malaria and the other had back problems with a low-grade fever, said Dr. Sujata Ambardar, the hospital’s medical director of infection control.

Ambardar stressed there is no cause for alarm, and that there has never been a confirmed case of Ebola in this country. Her hospital has had meetings the Fairfax County Health Department’ and is following its protocol on how to deal with infected patients, she said. Medstar Georgetown University Hospital also has been preparing for an Ebola emergency. Doctors there have been briefed on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on how to diagnosis Ebola contagion and what protective gear to wear when dealing with a possible case, said Marianne Worley, director of the hospital’s media relations.

Ebola is a severe hemorrhagic (abnormal blood flow) virus that is fatal for some 50 to 60 percent of its victims. Its first symptoms are similar to many illnesses, including fever, chills and body aches. As it progresses, a patient vomits, has bloodshot eyes and bleeds under the skin. It spreads quickly and can attack the kidneys, liver and brain.

Unlike respiratory and airborne viruses like smallpox, measles and influenza, which are highly contagious, “you really have to be very close” to someone with Ebola in order to catch it, explained Dr. Leslie Lobel, a faculty member of Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.“The hysteria is overblown,” said Lobel, who has been working with Ebola survivors for 12 years. His research deals mainly with the Sudan strain of the virus (the current outbreak is a Zaire strain). He works in Africa four to five times a year.


Most recently, he’s been in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said. Lobel is buoyed by the cocktail of antibiotics that appears to be curing the two Americans who contracted Ebola while helping in Africa, but “even if this drug is a huge success, and I hope it is,” it will only be effective for this particular strain, he explained. He is not surprised by this recent outbreak. In poorer countries, it is much harder to stop the spread of a disease due to poor sanitary conditions and less money to help the sick, he said. This Ebola outbreak also is harder to stop in a world where travel from one country to another is commonplace.

Lobel also pointed to global warming as another possible reason for the outbreak, explaining that Ebola used to be confined mostly to areas close to the equator where there is little temperature fluctuation. That area has enlarged, possibly due to warmer temperatures, he said. Lobel is not sure where Ebola comes from. “That’s the million dollar question,” he said, adding that “I favor the hypothesis” that blames bat droppings for the spread of the virus. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, testified before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing Aug. 7 that “we do not view Ebola as a significant danger to the United States, because it is not transmitted easily.”

His office issued a travel warning for Americans to avoid visiting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three countries where there have been confirmed Ebola cases. “We know how to stop Ebola with strict infection-control practices which are already in widespread use in American hospitals and by stopping it at the source in Africa,” he said in his testimony Lobel, who immigrated to Israel in 2002, has been studying the antibodies of more than 100 Ebola survivors, some of whom have lost their jobs simply because they had the virus, he said. Many of the people he studies are considered “pariahs. They are viewed as cursed people.


A lot of times they are shunned by the people,” simply because they survived, Lobel said, adding that in Israel or America, these people would be considered lucky. Lobel explained that survivors who had the strength to neutralize the virus could be the key to finding a cure. That is why he isolates their antibodies and studies them, he explained. Multiple approaches to curing Ebola are being researched at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda. In one study, researchers are partnering with biopharmaceutical companies to create a vaccine.

Their investigational vaccine is expected to enter phase one clinical trials as early as this fall, according to a spokesman. The U.S. government budgets for dealing with infectious diseases. Current funding for pandemic preparedness is $72 million, but only $50 million is set aside in the 2015 budget, according to Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

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