In January, Memorial Hermann’s Medical Staff News sat down with Luis Ostrosky, M.D., director of the Laboratory of Mycology Research, Division of Infectious Diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and medical director for Epidemiology at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, to discuss the current state of the Ebola epidemic. The epidemic, which originated in West Africa in March 2014, is the largest outbreak of Ebola in history. As Ostrosky explains, the Ebola epidemic continues to be closely monitored and remains an important topic of conversation for hospitals across the country.
Is the Ebola epidemic over?
The World Health Organization officially declared the epidemic over on Jan. 14, 2016. However, hours later, Sierra Leone reported a death from the virus. Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have been on the Ebola watch list for more than a year, with Liberia having confirmed a case as late as November of last year. A nation must reach 42 days without any Ebola cases to be declared free of transmission of the virus, which is twice the incubation period of the virus. This means Sierra Leone is now in a “wait and watch” state.
Does this mean there is still a risk in traveling to affected areas of Africa?
Until all three of these countries have been declared completely Ebola-free and can sustain this state, there is still a risk. We need to wait to see if the epidemic has been completely controlled in Sierra Leone and whether the other countries remain without any new cases in the meantime.
Is there a working Ebola vaccination?
There are several vaccines for the virus being tested right now, some of which are in the final phases of their clinical trials. The good news is results from all of these trials have been very encouraging.
Could the Ebola epidemic easily recur?
That is the challenge with epidemics…we’ve seen recurrences over the past couple of decades. With so much international travel occurring these days, it’s very easy for an epidemic that typically originates in a remote, distant town to enter a major city.
However, if we see success with the clinical trials I mentioned, then I think there is potential for a widespread vaccination to put an end to the Ebola epidemic.
Are U.S. hospitals now better equipped to manage a similar outbreak?
Yes. There are now very detailed guidelines for hospitals to manage Ebola cases, including how to screen for the virus, isolate affected patients, and protect healthcare workers. We now have designated treatment centers and evaluation centers across the country, which puts us in a much better state to handle the virus.
How is Memorial Hermann equipped to handle any future Ebola cases?
We have very active infection control and emergency management teams that are continuing to practice Ebola protocol and that will further expand our knowledge of the virus as research evolves. We’ve held several Ebola drills over the past year that include managing potential Ebola cases in the Emergency Room and working with the necessary equipment.
What should we be doing about Ebola now?
We shouldn’t let our guard down, but instead continue to monitor the situation in Africa very carefully and be very aware that the virus exists and could end up in one of our ERs. As physicians, we need to be very diligent with patients when discussing travel history as well as their history of infectious conditions and other diseases.