Viewing the current homepage of a major news source’s website that doesn’t feature one or more articles covering the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is about as rare as Ebola cases outside of Africa themselves.
According to a New York Times article updated on Oct. 28, there have only been 20 or fewer cases of Ebola treated outside of the parts of West Africa in which the outbreak began. Of the nine cases that have been documented in the United States, only one patient has died and the rest have recovered or are well on their way. Why, then, has Ebola become a topic that the media has fixated on to such a great extent?
“It’s the nature of the thing,” said Anne Dadarria, a Nurse Practitioner at Baldwin Hall. “With all the pictures in the news, the death rates, the footage; it makes people fearful.”
Dadarria and her colleague Dr. Irena Balawajder, Vassar’s Director of Health Services, both believe the constant attention given to the disease makes Ebola into a larger issue than it is.
“Ebola is something we [as a nation] will likely never see,” said Dadarria.
The two attribute their confidence to the advantages that American healthcare and preventative measures provide. Over the summer, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised American institutions to eliminate travel to the afflicted areas. While not an actual ‘ban’ on academic exchange, most colleges and universities—including Vassar—have stopped their faculty and students from traveling to West Africa for the time being.
Dr. Balawajder feels that the virus poses little threat to America so long as it remains contained in this fashion.
“This is one way to contain it,” said Dr. Balawajder, who has been following the outbreak since it was first declared by the World Health Organization back in March of this year. “It died out the first time because it was contained.”
Should Ebola still manage to find its way out of West Africa despite the containment, there are many other ways to combat it. Anyone who has traveled overseas and exhibits symptoms that could signify the Ebola virus are immediately isolated from human contact for a 21-day period, which is the maximum amount of time the virus takes to manifest. Additionally, there may soon be a solution to the problem.
“The [Ebola] vaccine will probably be available by the end of the year,” said Dr. Balawajder. “So we [as a nation] will most likely be immune to it.”
From what Balawajder has heard, there are three trial vaccines in the latter stages of testing that, if they prove safe and successful, could be widely available as soon as January of 2015.
But what if a student were to come back to Vassar, either from a break or from studying abroad, and exhibit symptoms of Ebola?
The first step taken would be the immediate notification of the CDC and the Dutchess County Health Department. After that, it would be up to the CDC and the DCHD to determine whether the afflicted student or faculty member should be isolated or quarantined and how and where they should be transported to hospitals for treatment. Although Ebola is a relatively new virus, the possibility of a pandemic is something the CDC has put a lot of time and effort into preventing and preparing to stop.
“We have an excellent health department.” Dadarria said. “They’re very active and are often down here training and working with us.”
While not specific to Ebola, the training programming used is specifically designed to combat similar infectious diseases. According to Balawajder, the programming was designed after the scares that the avian and H1N1—or swine—flus instilled in America. Unlike these diseases, Ebola can only be spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, making isolation and containment extremely effective in combating the disease.
“There are very specific pandemic responses for various stages of diseases,” said Dr. Balawajder. “Because awareness [of Ebola] is so high. I don’t think we’ll ever reach [a very dangerous] stage,” she confirmed.
Vassar also receives travel advisories and updates on the virus from the CDC, as well as TravEx, the College’s source for travel and information. In addition, the College is requiring that all students and faculty who are going abroad or who are abroad send Vassar’s health services their travel histories and itineraries. With this knowledge, Vassar can help keep students out of afflicted areas and make sure that any students or faculty who do end up there receive medical evaluation when they return.
“This is a changing scenario,” said Dr. Balawajder. “But it let’s us look at pandemic preparedness. It let’s us prepare for our breaks and do trainings.”
Health Services is also hoping to disseminate information about the disease throughout campus. On Oct. 29, ProHealth came to campus to hold a panel with professors from the Biology department to help answer students’ questions about the disease and how it’s being handled. Signs have been put up in Baldwin and in locations around campus with some facts about the disease and requests urging students to notify Health Services if they are going abroad.
That said, Balawajder and Dadarria feel that there are several easy steps to helping prevent all diseases, not just Ebola.
“There are several important things we want to stress,” Dr. Balawajder said as Dadarria nodded in agreement. “Students should make sure to take care of hand hygiene, cough etiquette and make sure to get their flu shots.”
Though in Balawajder and Dadarria’s opinions Ebola does not pose as great of a threat to America as it has been made out to, it most definitely does to West Africa and other areas of the world.
“The most important thing is to send help to West Africa,” said Dr. Balawajder. “Because that is where it’s needed.”