Doctor Panel Discusses Realities of Ebola

Over 700 students and members of the local community attended the “Ebola: What You Should Know” program headed by a panel of doctors in the Pacific Ballroom at the Student Center on Oct. 27.

Doctors from across the state discussed the virology and ecology of the disease, socioeconomic impacts and about prevention efforts at the local level. The doctors also sought to assure the audience that a local outbreak is very unlikely.

“We don’t have the natural host here. The chance of establishing this virus here in this ecosystem is impossible unless you switch hosts, which is unlikely to happen,” said UCI professor Michael Buchmeier, who discussed Ebola virology at the panel. “With first class medical care, we can isolate people, we can treat them appropriately and we can block that infection.”

The Ebola viruses are the cause of a severe, life-threatening illness called the Ebola virus disease or Ebola for short. Ebola is transmitted to humans from wild animals, namely bats. Once transmitted, the virus spreads between humans through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person. 

“Transmission is only from symptomatic people,” said UCSF professor George Rutherford, who discussed epidemiology and preventing transmission of the disease. “If you’re hospitalized and they’re doing it right, for every eight cases, one healthcare worker will be affected. If you’re not doing it right, which is largely what’s going on, you’ll have one point eight infections for every one case.”

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the disease has taken the lives of over 5,000 people in its current outbreak in West Africa. Projections on the number of future  cases and resulting deaths vary significantly.

In the unlikely event that Ebola enters California, the UCI Medical Center has been designated as an Ebola treatment center by the CDC. UC Irvine’s Public Health Advisory Committee is working with the Medical Center to take necessary precautions to assure safety on campus.

“UCI would like to strongly emphasize that members of the UCI community are at extremely low risk for exposure to the Ebola virus,” said Christina Fingal, medical director of the UCI Student Health Services, in a campus wide email. “Airport screening is identifying more than 90 percent of all persons at risk for Ebola infection.”

Additionally, medical staff in the Southern California have had time and the resources to prepare for the possibility of the spread of Ebola to the area.

“We know how, as healthcare workers, to use personal protective equipment,” said Shruti Gohil, associate medical director at UC Irvine, who discussed local infection control and assured the audience that UCI’s medical facility is trained to handle an outbreak. “The CDC has been evolving and as near as one week ago they released updated guidance for personal protective equipment.”

Although the current outbreak may not affect the local community directly, the doctors discussed the costs of inaction and why diseases like Ebola are spreading rapidly in the first place.

“Bats are extremely adaptable and can easily live inside or around human habitation,” said Stanford associate professor James Jones, who discussed Ebola disease ecology. “By cutting down primary forests, these guys got to go somewhere and if they’re not going to roost in primary forests away from human habitation, they’ll happily do it in a mixed forest which surrounds farms and cities.”

There were also other contributors to the current epidemic as well as Victoria Fan, assistant professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa pointed out. Fan discussed the health economics of Ebola in West Africa and revealed how chronic poverty in West Africa was contributing to the spread of the virus

“Because of these low resources in general, that also translates into very few resources for healthcare. In Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia we are just talking a few bucks per person per year spent by these governments for healthcare,” Fan said. “From the perspective of West Africa, averting these large expected losses is a good investment if cheaper than the costs.”  

The doctors also mentioned the various steps their medical facilities are taking to combat the Ebola outbreak. UCSF has set up a system through which employees can donate vacation days for doctors going to West Africa.

“In Africa, there is a desperate need for healthcare workers, so if you are in clinical practice and you want to take time off and go do something worthwhile, we are talking about 3,000 people [that we need],” Rutherford said. “It’s important to attack it there and not wait for it to come here and play guess who has got Ebola,” said Rutherford. 

The speakers were available for a question and answer session after their presentations with audience members asking a variety of questions on the subjects of Ebola, medical practices and former epidemics.

“Overall the event was well done and the panelists did a very good job of explaining the situation to us with the most up-to-date facts,” said Janani Venkateswaran, a first-year psychology and social behavior major. “I thought the session was informative and dispelled some of the myths that I had about the Ebola outbreak.”

A recording of the event can be viewed online through the UCI DUE Media Services website’s Youtube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/UCITLTC.