Canoeing Down the Ebola River

Posted: Aug 8, 2014
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Positive-pressure biosafety suitI am obsessed with the Ebola virus and I have been for years. I own books titled The Coming Plague and Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC. For Christmas two years ago my sister gave me the book Spillover about scary viruses that live in animal populations and how they made their way into humans. I am not the animal lover who wants to go to Thailand to vacation among the monkeys because I know they can carry crazy viruses. When IVECCS was in Atlanta in 2006, Kristin and I visited the CDC. We sent in our social security numbers, went through the background check, convinced a cab driver to haul us out there, and we toured the visitor’s center. We even tried on the Level 4 positive pressure don’t let any germs in space suits. It was AWESOME. But I’m nerdy like that.

So you can imagine how this current Ebola outbreak in western Africa has held my attention. It’s terrifying and fascinating all at once. It makes me glad to live where I live, and really admire the medical professionals who are risking their lives to research this virus and attempt to comfort those suffering from it. It’s also got me thinking about the other zoonotic diseases we face in veterinary medicine. Ebola comes from (they think) bats that then get eaten as "bush meat" in Africa (and other countries, those of you ‘adventurous eaters’ out there best beware the unlabeled meat sold on the roadside in rural China). Thank goodness my hospital doesn’t work with any of those species, but that doesn’t mean my life is free from zoonotic dangers.

There’s MRSA/MRSP, fungal nastiness, lepto, plague, tularemia, hantavirus, various tick borne diseases, rabies, Ecoli, salmonella, ringworm, and that’s not even including livestock diseases (anthrax anyone? spongiform encephalitis?) or bird diseases (psittacosis? H1N1?). The veterinary world of no gloves and no fear is an antiquated thought; we should really be paying more attention. But that’s the best part! We simply need to pay more attention. I don’t want to sound flippant, or like I’m dismissing the danger of some of these diseases, but our fears should not prevent us from being able to perform our jobs as medical professionals. If we know, or can suspect what we are dealing with, we know what to do to keep ourselves safe. This involves continuing education and simply looking out for clinical signs. Like the hairless area on a kitten, noting that the dog with profuse diarrhea eats a raw food diet, that the acute renal disease dog regularly goes hiking; pay attention and prepare.

Ebola, while causing a horrific and terrifying death, isn’t aerosolized. It doesn’t leap through clothing or travel across the room. It is transferred via "close contact" with bodily fluids. Sounds like parvo… Would any of us even THINK of treating a parvo puppy without placing it in isolation, wearing gloves, and putting on an isolation gown? Yet we don’t run around like headless chickens wringing our hands every time a parvo puppy comes into the hospital. We are careful and we manage it. We simply need to take the same precautions to protect ourselves from zoonotic diseases.  Sound familiar to those of you in lepto land? How about you who work with MRSP wounds? Take some extra care with those patients, wear your protective gear, and you’ll come out okay. Follow laundry protocols, create a cleaning protocol, and restrict the number of people who have contact with zoonotic patients. EDUCATE yourselves, your clients, and each other about which diseases you may see in your area. If I ever come to the Southwest, please educate ME on the weird fungal spores you have down there.

While I’d rather try my luck with lepto than Ebola, our approach should be the same: caution, preparation, and compassion. Wear gloves. Wash your hands. Wash your scrubs. Evaluate your cleaning protocol and update it if needed. And books. Read lots and lots and lots of books about creepy viruses and horrible plagues. You’ll be thankful you live when you do. And then you’ll go take a shower.