Minnesota is well-armed to tackle Ebola risk

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2014 - 6:01 PM

Uneasy Minnesotans should feel reassured by the preparations.

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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials in Atlanta held a conference call on Ebola with CDC team members deployed in West Africa on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014.

Photo: David Goldman • Associated Press,

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Minnesota infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm likens the Ebola outbreak raging in four West African countries to a forest fire.

The exotic virus provided the spark. The region’s poverty, its nearly nonexistent public-health infrastructure and cultural fears of Western medicine provided abundant tinder for a frightening conflagration of the deadly disease.

While no one can definitively rule out one of this fire’s “embers” — someone who is sick with Ebola and not under the care of medical authorities — unexpectedly reaching the United States, advanced medical and public-health systems here would deny the outbreak the fuel it needs to continue.

“The developed world would put out that ember very quickly. It will not spread,’’ said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

That calm and informed perspective is especially important for Minnesotans to keep in mind as the battle against Ebola intensifies in four West African nations: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. With a large community of Liberian immigrants calling the Twin Cities home, Minnesotans are understandably concerned that the new citizens’ ties to this African nation could put them and their new home state at risk.

So far, 1,711 cases of Ebola have been reported in Africa, and more than 900 people have died there. Star Tribune readers have made their fears known; a panicky letter to the editor called for an air travel ban from stricken African nations, something that could further destabilize these fragile nations. Others have called or e-mailed after hearing Internet-based rumors that there are already people with Ebola in Minnesota.

For the record, no one has contracted Ebola in the Western Hemisphere. The only cases of Ebola reported in the United States are the two American medical missionaries who were infected in Africa and recently airlifted to an Emory University hospital near the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s headquarters in Atlanta.

Still, unease in the state suggests that Minnesota’s health providers and experts need to amplify public outreach. It can’t be emphasized enough that Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids and that people who were recently infected with the disease but are not symptomatic don’t appear to be contagious.

Health officials and providers around the state would also do well to vociferously remind Minnesotans of our state’s medical assets and preparedness. The world-class Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is known not only for rapidly tracing outbreaks but for the strong partnerships it has forged with medical providers around the state.

This connectivity is one of the state’s most potent weapons against disease outbreaks, including Ebola. The state’s sharp-eyed health professionals are informed, on high alert and wired with MDH and other health providers. In addition, the state’s hospitals have had emergency drills for years to prepare for an outbreak or bioterrorism incident.

They’ve also invested in equipment and training to quickly and safely isolate patients suspected of having a disease like Ebola. These facts should help dispel fears about a potential Ebola victim spreading the virus while waiting in a local emergency room.

“We are ready,’’ said Cindy J. Larson, director of the Quality, Safety, and Medical Staff Office at United Hospital in St. Paul. Larson spoke on behalf of Allina Hospitals.

Larson’s confidence in Minnesota’s providers and public health infrastructure was underscored by MDH’s Kris Ehresmann this week. Ehresmann, a nationally respected infectious-disease expert, noted that Minnesota has already proven it can quickly detect and contain an exotic, deadly illness.

In April, a case of another severe viral disease endemic to western Africa — Lassa fever — was reported involving a Minnesotan who had traveled to the region. About 5,000 people are estimated to die from Lassa fever each year in West Africa. The Minnesota case was the first reported in the United States since 2010 and only the seventh involving travelers to the United States, according to the CDC.

Like Ebola, Lassa fever can be spread by direct contact with bodily fluids from someone who is sick. Thanks to top-notch care, surveillance and infection control, no one else in the state developed the disease.

The continuing battle against Ebola in West Africa should also be a reminder of how much the world leans on the CDC to fight outbreaks. Funding from international donor nations has dwindled alarmingly for the World Health Organization, and the CDC must increasingly step into the void.

Unfortunately, this vital agency has faced its own budget challenges during sequestration. Lawmakers must do a better job of protecting the CDC from thoughtless budget cuts. It isn’t just Americans depending on this vital agency. The rest of the world is, too.

 

For a video report on Ebola from editorial writers Jill Burcum and John Rash, go to startribune.com/opinion.

  • WATCH THE HEARING

    The U.S. House is on summer break, but a Foreign Affairs subcommittee held a hearing on Aug. 7 to review the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified. To watch the archived video of the hearing, go to http://tinyurl.com/nlylw53.

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