Update: The Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the U.S. Sept. 30, 2014. The patient is being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas. This is a developing story.
In response to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and researchers in the University’s School of Public Health, the University is taking preemptive efforts to protect the student body from the deadly Ebola virus disease, which is spreading rapidly through several West African countries.
Last week, the CDC advised that universities remain vigilant against the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and urged campus health officials to increase precautionary measures, especially during the initial weeks that students are returning to campus. At this point, however, implementation of the recommendations is left to the discretion of each institution.
Students who recently spent time in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia or Nigeria — the four countries currently facing Ebola outbreaks — are at the highest risk of bringing the disease to college campuses. While some universities have all but ignored the threat or relied on students to self-report potential Ebola symptoms, the University is currently screening all students returning from these countries for Ebola risk factors.
“We’re walking a line of trying to be vigilant and have a safe environment, without raising the kind of alarm that would unnecessarily escalate the stigma and isolation of people,” said Robert Winfield, the University’s Chief Health Officer, in an interview with the New York Times on Aug. 29.
University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that University health officials have been very proactive in addressing the potential threat and, so far, no Ebola cases have been identified.
Fitzgerald confirmed that one University faculty member had been in Liberia teaching and that one graduate student is in Nigeria conducting research. The faculty member in Liberia recently left the country, but Fitzgerald could not confirm whether that decision was in response to the outbreak.
Nationally, only four confirmed Ebola cases have been treated in U.S. hospitals, with each patient being diagnosed abroad before receiving specialized medical transport back to a designated U.S. treatment facility. An unknown number of potentially exposed individuals have also been transported from the affected countries.
Tuesday, the U.S. government pledged $10 million Tuesday to train aid workers in West Africa and support treatment efforts. This makes the total U.S. contribution more than $100 million.
Epidemiology Prof. Eden Wells, associate director of the University’s Preventive Medicine Residency Program, said the involvement of U.S. aid workers at this stage is primarily motivated by the humanitarian crisis, though government officials have also noted the long-term benefits of preventing the outbreak from spreading to other countries.
“These are employees of the CDC and other organizations that are putting their hands up and volunteering to go,” Wells said. “That is humanitarian, that is passion, knowing that they are needed.”
Public health researchers are particularly concerned over the exponential growth of the disease. In an interview with NPR Monday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said almost half of the reported Ebola cases have been observed in the last two weeks.
Wells said the best containment procedure is to prevent contact between infected and healthy individuals. However, the lack of basic public health services and stigmas about registering for treatment in the region has discouraged persons from seeking medical care — the hospitals being viewed as more dangerous than home in some cases.
“There’s a lot of fear,” Wells said. “When the locals are becoming ill, they are returning to their villages and places they feel comfortable. Unfortunately, that can lead to spread.”
Case fatality for the disease currently sits at about 50 percent. However, early intervention and supportive care — the only treatments currently available, as there is no vaccine approved for human use — have shown promising results. While the death toll in West Africa has topped 2,000 since the beginning of the outbreak, none of the four infected individuals who were flown to the U.S. for treatment have died. Two have recovered and been released.
The disparity in public health system quality also means that, should Ebola be identified in a U.S. hospital, it would pose a much lower threat than in West Africa.
“Yes, we probably will have someone arrive on a plane (with Ebola),” Wells said. “But we have a public health system in place that we could immediately isolate the patient and quarantine anyone who was exposed, and that’s been quite effective. So we would not see the spread or the problems that we’ve seen in this area.”
The CDC has published guidelines for U.S. health workers to identify potential Ebola patients. According to the report, an individual must have a fever of at least 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit and have traveled to an infected area within the last three weeks.
Overall, Wells said the U.S. public health system has been responding well to the precautions, educating healthcare workers and remaining vigilant to the possible threat.
“We’ve had a few suspect cases, but they tested negative,” Wells said. “And that’s just a sign that our surveillance system is working.”
LSA senior Remy Tabano spent part of the summer in Ghana as part of a medical anthropology program studying the effects of gold mining on child and maternal health. She said she and her classmates were aware of the outbreak before leaving the U.S. after reading media reports, but received no official communications from the University or CDC regarding travel.
“I personally took precautions to make sure everything was okay,” Tabano said. “I had actually studied the virus previously, and I knew the severity of the outbreak — and how unique it was.”
Tabano said she could not accurately assess the situation in the affected countries, adding that, despite U.S. tendency to refer to West Africa as a homogeneous region, the countries involved in the outbreak all have different public health systems and different capabilities in fighting the disease.