KILLINGTON – Is Vermont prepared to handle the Ebola virus should it come here?
Dr. Harry Chen, M.D., acting secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, addressed that question at the 25th annual Vermont Health Care and EMS Preparedness Conference, held last weekend at the Grand Hotel at Killington Resort.
Chen said the risk of contracting Ebola in Vermont is tiny, but it is still a possible threat.
“There is no need to panic, but we have to keep it in our heads,” Chen said. “That’s how we’re going to stay out of trouble. The risk is small, but it’s never going to go away entirely.”
Ebola, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website, describes some of the same symptoms as the flu, including: a sudden fever and fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. As the disease progresses, victims experience vomiting, diarrhea, rash, possible kidney and liver damage, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. It takes anywhere from two to 21 days for Ebola to incubate. The only way for Ebola to spread is through direct contact with infected bodily fluids, like saliva, breast milk, or excretions. A patient has to be experiencing symptoms in order to transmit the disease.
Chen said that half of those who contract the virus die from it.
Currently, the WHO says the epidemic is in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. One reason, said Chen, is that the medical infrastructure in those countries is very weak.
“There are no clinics, no doctors, and no hospitals” for many who suffer, he said.
The U.S. has currently seen five cases and a single fatality, all in the area of Dallas, Texas.
“It won’t go away until we stop it at the source,” Chen said, noting that previous outbreaks have been contained before. “We haven’t seen epidemics in other parts of the world. Here, the risk is small. Ebola is not easy to catch. It can’t be transmitted through air, water, or food. A person who is not sick can’t spread the disease.”
Chen said effective communication among medical professionals is the key to keeping the disease under control.
“We want to make sure you keep Ebola in mind when you ask about a patient’s travel history,” Chen said. “The first thing to ask is, ‘Have you been to West Africa?’ The most important thing is to identify patients who might have Ebola. Every clinic has to be prepared to ask the appropriate questions and take appropriate steps.”
Talking to reporters after his presentation, Chen said his department was taking every step possible to be prepared, though he noted that mistakes were made in Dallas.
“As long as we pay attention, we should be able to stop it here,” he said.
Among the steps being taken in Vermont is having a special ambulance available from Fletcher Allen hospital in Burlington should a possible case develop in Vermont. He also said the state was being careful to screen people traveling to and from Canada.
“We’ve been working with Immigration in Derby,” he said. “We’re doing what we need to do. We’re doing everything we can to coordinate our system to keep Vermonters safe.”
For more information visit healthvermont.gov.
By Stephen Seitz