By Marie Pfeifer
First, the good news about Ebola:
It’s almost impossible to contract the deadly virus through the air.
Now, brace yourself. Some scientists speculate that the virus is only
seven several mutations away from going airborne. And researchers are having a hard time tracking all the mutations.
That’s according to Dr. Kathleen Ruddy, a member of the Leadership Council of the Harvard School of Public Health.
She addressed the adult forum of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown last weekend about the West African epidemic that has infected more than 13,000 people and claimed nearly 5,000 lives.
The World Health Organization issued a statement that Ebola Zaire, the strain terrorizing Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, is only transmitted through direct contact with body fluids of an infected patient shedding the virus.
But nearly 400 genetic mutations were identified in this strain during the first six months of the outbreak. To make an effective vaccine, Ruddy said, scientists must identify the mutations.
They have been hampered since June by their inability to obtain Ebola victims’ blood samples. Political roadblocks and fear among transport workers in Sierra Leone finally have been allayed, according to Ruddy, and 900 samples have been shipped to Dr. Robert Garry of Tulane University, who will work with Dr. Pardis Sabeti of the
Blood Brand Institute at Harvard to sequence them to study the mutations.
Meanwhile, the number of victims is doubling every three- to four weeks. As many as 130 cases are predicted for the U.S. by year’s end; worldwide, up to 1.4 million infections are anticipated by health officials.
Video of Dr. Ruddy’s presentation: Part 1
TO QUARANTINE, OR NOT TO QUARANTINE?
The vexing part–which has stirred controversy about mandatory quarantines in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere–is the incubation period of this disease.
“Patients who are infected with the Ebola virus will test negative until they become symptomatic, and many patients will continue to test negative until the first few days of their illness,” said Ruddy, a breast cancer surgeon who established the Breast Health and Healing Foundation.
The average incubation period of Ebola Zaire is 10-12 days, though it can range as long as 21 days, she said.
When nurse Kaci Hickox, who treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, showed an elevated temperature after exiting a plane at Newark Liberty Airport last month, she was placed in a hospital isolation tent.
Gov. Chris Christie said it was better to err on the side of caution, in the absence of firm health protocols from the federal government.
Hickox eventually returned to her home in northern Maine, where local authorities enabled her to travel fairly freely, while being monitored for symptoms.
While stopping short of calling for mandatory quarantines, Ruddy did express concerns.
“Patients like Kaci Hickox, who live in a remote place such as Ft. Kent, Maine, would do well to consider how far away they are from a designated Ebola hospital, how long it will take to get there, and how many people would be put in harm’s way getting them where they need to be so that we can save their lives,” Ruddy told the audience at St. Peter’s, where she is a member.
The nearest federally designated Ebola treatment center to Ft. Kent, Maine, is Boston’s Mass General Hospital — 460 miles and a seven-hour car ride away.
If she could implement one move, Ruddy said it would be to place a blood-testing machine for Ebola in every hospital. The machines cost nearly $100,000 each.
Education also can help. West Africa burial practices — which include physical contact with deceased loved ones– have contributed to the spread of the disease. Bodies continue to be contagious even after death.
Initially, Ruddy was skeptical about President Obama’s appointment of a non-health official as the nation’s Ebola czar. She concluded that Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, should be well briefed on developments.
As for closing international borders, Ruddy doubts it would be an effective strategy against Ebola.
“It is us against the virus! Not us versus them,” she said.
Video of Dr. Ruddy’s talk, part 2