Last week, the second of two Americans infected with the Ebola virus arrived at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
The two Americans, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, are medical missionaries who were infected with the virus while working at an Ebola treatment center in Liberia in Western Africa. They are the first people infected with Ebola to be treated at a U.S. Institution.
First detected in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa, Ebola is a severe viral hemorrhagic fever that is often fatal.
Although there have been sporadic outbreaks since its detection, the current outbreak in Western Africa is the biggest and most complex Ebola outbreak ever documented. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak an international health emergency.
Similar to many other illnesses, Ebola has an abrupt onset of symptoms such as fever, chills, sore throat, muscle weakness and body aches. Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea, are common and hemorrhaging including serious internal and external bleeding occurs in almost half of the cases.
Similar to HIV or hepatitis C, Ebola can only be transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids or blood. While there is no vaccine or cure at this time, patients are only infectious when they are sick. Experts say that the most contagious patients are those who are very sick and unlikely to be moving around much.
Because of the poor health care facilities and practices in Africa, the current outbreak kills between 60-80 percent of the people infected. As of last week, in West Africa there had been more than 1,700 confirmed and suspected Ebola cases and nearly 1,000 suspected case deaths.
The suspicion of western medicine that exists in Africa, as well as the burial rites where families handle the still-contagious corpses of their loved ones, facilitates the spread of the disease, increasing mortality and incidence.
In view of the high mortality rate, some have questioned the wisdom of bringing Ebola-infected patients back to the United States for treatment, especially to such a densely populated area as Atlanta.
While we must be always be careful not to put the general population at risk with a communicable disease, in this particular situation we must keep in mind a number of things before jumping to conclusions.
First of all, the chance of a mass outbreak of this particular virus in the U.S. from a medical isolation unit is exceedingly low.
Because Ebola can only be transmitted through bodily fluids, the super-secure isolation unit at Emory University Hospital makes it one of the safest places in the world to treat someone with the disease.
But perhaps the most important point to be made here is the responsibility of our country to make certain American medical workers risking their lives overseas are provided with the best treatment available without exposing the American people to unnecessary risks.
The real key here is education. Like the AIDS fears of the 1980s and 1990s, the public must be educated as to the risks involved and precautions that must be taken.
Health care officials in the U.S., particularly here in Georgia, have done a good job thus far of educating the public to the benefits and risks of bringing these two medical missionaries back for treatment.
While this experience should help propel Emory University Hospital in Atlanta to be recognized as a top-tier academic medical center in America, the reputation of health care in the state of Georgia will also be enhanced. Along with the CDC, the Task Force for Global Health and the American Cancer Society, Georgia is rapidly becoming known as the home of world-class health facilities.
As a Georgian, I am proud of Emory University Hospital and the other world-class health facilities we have in our state.
As an American, I am proud that we don’t abandon our medical missionaries and that we make certain they get the best treatment available.