Distracting disease

As fears surrounding Ebola peaked in the South Bay last week with the Southwestern College scare, local medical experts say a rapid and widespread outbreak of Ebola in Chula Vista is practically impossible.

“(Regardless) of the fact that we have modern healthcare, we have a largely unseen public health infrastructure to do contact tracing on patients who have infectious disease and we aggressively go after that,” said Dr. James LaBelle, chief medical officer with Scripps Health. “Even though that might not seem like the most important part of modern medicine, it is in fact the core infrastructure that would prevent the spread of an epidemic of any sort.”

The threat at Southwestern College was based on false information, but the campus’s rapid quarantine efforts indicate a level of response capabilities in the United States that countries like Liberia cannot achieve.

“There’s no comparison. In a place like Liberia where most of these things are happening, they have virtually no medical infrastructure,” said Dr. Lynn Welling, chief medical officer with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “We’re talking about small clinics in shanty towns with sporadic places of increased aid and increased capabilities.”

Because many cultures in West Africa lack modern medicine and burial practices, they often have very ill family members in the house until their death. Ebola is most infectious and most virulent during the late stages and in the remains of its victims.

“It’s really hard to catch this disease, even if you’re infected with it,” LaBelle said. “Shaking the hand of a patient with Ebola early on is not really a risk of transmission.”

The biggest threat Ebola poses to South Bay is drawing attention away from other illnesses like influenza and whooping cough which kill thousands in the United States every year, said LaBelle. Lack of awareness and proper prevention of these other diseases can greatly increase their mortality rates.

People can protect themselves from Ebola by following the best practices for preventing any transmittable disease, including frequent hand washing, staying home from work and school when sick and wearing masks when you have to be in contact with someone who has symptoms of illness.

“Hygiene again, we’ve been emphasizing it for years,” Welling added. “It’s probably the single most important thing to do with any type of communicable disease, especially one like the flu or Ebola that is a droplet spread type of thing.”
Ebola and the common flu are spread through the transmission of bodily fluids.

Local hospitals, including Sharp and Scripps facilities, made assurances that the proper procedures and equipment are now in place to protect the staff since the recent case of Thomas Eric Duncan, an Ebola patient who died in a Texas hospital Oct. 8. One of the care providers at the hospital transmitted Ebola and has since been cleared of the virus.

There is no evidence Chula Vista’s proximity to an international port of entry raises any extra risk as the vast majority of people crossing the border do not come in contact with internationals from endemic areas like Liberia.

“If you really wanted to stretch your imagination and say somebody from West Africa is trying to sneak into the country and they sneak into Mexico, and then they sneak over the border,” said Welling, “by the time you’ve done all that sneaking you’re usually way past the 21-day incubation period.”

Beyond that period, people who are exposed to Ebola will either be healthy or showing symptoms of the virus, for which border officials are prepared to screen, Welling added.