Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Known and unknown: putting Ebola in perspective

At a recent morning huddle, I noticed that the hanging file of emergency protocols at my practice nurse's station held a new folder, labeled "Ebola." That same day, a patient who had returned from West Africa was isolated at a nearby hospital for symptoms consistent with infection with the virus. I had been following news about the Ebola epidemic for months, since its re-emergence in Guinea, rapid spread to neighboring Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, through the critical illness and miraculous recovery of family physician Kent Brantly. But until that day, I hadn't actually confronted the question, "As a family physician, what do I need to know about this?"

Many have pointed out that even though this is by far the largest and most lethal Ebola outbreak in history, it pales in importance next to more common and contagious viruses such as influenza or measles, or emerging infections closer to home, such as the enterovirus respiratory illness that has stricken children in 46 states. Family physician blogger Mike Sevilla expressed skepticism that patients who continue to decline influenza vaccines in droves would be willing to receive a vaccine against Ebola even if it could be produced quickly, and given our abysmal track record with pandemic flu vaccination, I tend to agree.

What terrifies health professionals and laypersons about Ebola, despite its thus-far limited impact in the United States, is that so much about it is unknown. Clinicians are prepared to tackle influenza, a known quantity from past years. We don't know what to expect from Ebola, a nebulous threat to cause disaster at any time, like bioterrorism. Until more is known, family physicians should remember that fever in returning international travelers is far more likely to be due to malaria (which turned out to be the diagnosis of the hospitalized patient I mentioned earlier), and to always ask and communicate about recent travel, rather than depending on an electronic medical record to do it.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

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