Thursday, October 9, 2014

Informed Not Frenzied

A lot of people are talking about Ebola. It's everywhere - on television, in newspapers (yes, they still exist), trending on Twitter, and popping up in news feeds all across Facebook. Except while suburban housewives the world over are freaking out about a epidemic in the United States and clicking share as fast as their fingers will allow, the facts are falling to the wayside and being replaced by panic.

By this point, we should all know how the Ebola virus is spread. Through feces (that's poop!), blood, saliva, sweat and urine. It is not airborne, though if someone with Ebola sneezes in front of you, then it is travelling through the air and some of their saliva could very well get in your mouth. Also, if you are in Africa, do your best to avoid 'bush meat', which is wild animals found in the jungle, often dead carcasses of bats, monkeys, and porcupines. While 'bush meat' sounds gross to us - after all, who just eats a dead carcass they find in the forest? - many people in the Congo rely on this sort of food for survival. 

Now, why is an epidemic highly unlikely in North America or Europe? Here are five reasons why you don't have to be so afraid: 

1. Knowledge. For the most part, we know the symptoms (fever, diarrhea, muscle pain, vomiting, unusual bruising, swelling of genitals, internal and external bleeding) and understand the seriousness of reporting to medical personal if they are experiencing them. This might seem like a grade school point, but our media is a lot different than a third world countries - meaning we actually have media - and spreading of this knowledge is easy here. It isn't there. People who are sick aren't being quarantined and a lot aren't even going to the hospital. 

2. Containment. We understand it is necessary to contain the infected and treat them. This is another fact residents in places like Liberia and Sudan don't understand. These places have suffered great tragedies, often at the hands of their government, therefore they don't trust what they are being told. The lack of trust between the people, medical practitioners and the government are making it impossible to contain the virus. People are breaking into the hospitals and trying to free their family members and friends. All of it seems crazy, but a lack of communication and trust is the underlying cause of why this virus is spreading to rapidly. 

3. Equipment. They don't have the same equipment or facilities in West Africa as they do in big cities like London and New York, or British Columbia. We have isolation rooms that are designed for bio-containment where there is specialized care and different drugs. In order to end the epidemic in West Africa, they would need to isolate at least 70% of patients and right now, in Liberia, that number is only at 18%. You don't need a medical degree to figure out if you want a virus to stop spreading you need to limit the amount of people carriers come in contact with. 

4. Cleanliness. We live very different lives from those in West Africa. There are things we know and have that we take for granted, like sanitation and having a yard. We have fences and walls, not just a curtain separating us from our neighbours. Things like washing our hands and not throwing our waste into the street. Not eating the corpses of dead animals we find. Keeping our distance from people who are sick. What we take for granted and understand to be common knowledge hasn't travelled all over the world.   

5. Dealing with the deceased. A massive factor in the spreading of the Ebola virus has been the handling of corpses. Some of you might pause when you read that and think, what the hell is she talking about? I am guessing you didn't know people were breaking into the hospitals and stealing the bodies of their deceased family members. Many practices around religion and death in West Africa actually involves close contact with the body of those who have died. Hugging is a huge part of religious worshipping in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, as is rituals for preparation of the body for burial, including washing, touching and kissing. These are things most of us wouldn't dream of doing, especially if we knew the person was infected with a contagious and incurable virus. Professionals have been trying to convey how the treatment of dead relatives can put people at risk, but it is a message that doesn't seem to be getting across. 

In conclusion, poor sanitation and huge cultural differences are a massive part of why West Africa has suffered so greatly. Wrap those two factors up with overcrowding, lack of equipment, and hugging and kissing your dead and you pretty much have yourself an epidemic. Yes, it's a concern health professionals are getting sick, not because they will spread it to everyone else, but because they are the ones we turn to for guidance and to set an example. Still, it's as simple as taking your gloves off in the wrong order or wiping down a surface with a contaminated towel. Mistakes happen, even though we would like them not to in this case. Nurses, doctors and nursing assistants are human, after all, and fallible. They are the ones who need to be taking this situation seriously, handling it quickly, and following all safety precautions, so it's a little worrisome when you hear reports of faulty protective gear and subpar health codes in hospitals when it is closer to home. 

The most important thing you can do is be informed and not succumb to the fear. If you come in contact with someone who has Ebola, or you suspect has Ebola, or you have the symptoms I've listed above, seek help. The earlier the treatment, the better the chances. But don't get in a panic induced frenzy because there was a case in Dallas and a couple in Spain. Wash your hands. Try not to handle blood, feces or the dead. And be diligent about your own health and cleanliness. 

Oh, yeah, don't eat bush meat. 

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