What Comes After Ebola?

Article Categories: Diseases and Conditions & Taking Care of Yourself

Every single RN can relate to the sudden transfers of Ebola patients to the United States last year. As nurses, we stand ready to care for any patient, no matter what the diagnosis. Yet the possibility of contracting a horrific infection, even with full isolation precautions, is terrifying.

Brave nurses stepped in, whether as volunteers in Sierra Leone or as hands-on caregivers for their colleagues who were transported to American hospitals in a desperate attempt to save their lives. One of the infected nurses, Pauline Cafferkey, has been readmitted to a London hospital, with complications. It seems that survivors can still harbor the virus, causing long-term effects, especially in the eyes, spinal fluid, ovaries, and testicles.

Ebola is the latest example of a new deadly disease that scientists are scrambling to understand. A study of 120 survivors will be funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in hopes of discovering what happens to the immune system post-Ebola.

What happens when the next infectious disease develops? Many public health experts feel that the U.S. health system is not prepared for a serious outbreak. Stephen Morse, of Columbia University’s School of Public Health said, “Ebola’s appearance in Dallas last year was a ‘wake-up call’ showing that the USA is far more vulnerable to the disease than people assumed.”

Other infectious diseases could actually pose a greater threat than Ebola. Since 1940, almost 350 new infectious diseases have been identified. Over 70% come from animals. Some of the newest are respiratory illnesses, spread by sneezing and coughing, such as Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and bird flu.

New strains of influenza continue to develop, too, with potential to replicate the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, when 40% of the world contracted the illness and 500 million people died. Elke Muhlberger, a microbiology professor at Boston University, states: "I think that it is possible that something like the 1918 flu outbreak could occur again. If a new influenza strain found its way in the human population, could be transmitted easily between humans, and caused severe illness, we would have a big problem."

Hospitals examined their isolation policies and changed protocols after Ebola, and are now prepared to handle a patient with a “direct contact/bodily fluid” infection. But what about respiratory borne illnesses? Would a contagious patient be quickly identified? Are staff adequately trained in all isolation techniques? Could the hospital properly contain the disease?

As front-line caregivers, nurses are at risk for any new emerging infectious disease. It’s important to remember the lessons from Ebola and to keep updated in epidemiology. Ask questions of patients and know where they have traveled. Always, always use standard precautions. As nurses, we won’t stop providing excellent care. But we need to keep ourselves protected and safe.