Simple preventive measures may help stem Ebola

Lindsey Baden

December 5, 2014 The rush to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in the last few months has generated years’ worth of new information about the previously little understood infectious disease, including simple but effective prevention measures, according to Lindsey Baden, deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and member of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology faculty.

“We’ve learned as much about Ebola in the last two months as we normally would in 5-6 years,” Baden told an HSPH audience at his November 20, 2014 talk, “Ebola: Reporting on and Responding to an Evolving Outbreak.” The talk was sponsored by the Office of the Dean as part of a lecture series on the current Ebola outbreak.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola—named after the Ebola River where the disease first was recognized in 1976—has claimed about 5,500 lives and sickened more than 14,000 in the current outbreak, mostly in West Africa.

One of the key lessons learned, said Baden, is the importance of keeping Ebola patients hydrated, even hydrating people at risk for the disease before they are diagnosed to compensate for severe fluid loss they would experience if they get the disease.

“It could make the difference between someone who survives Ebola or succumbs to it,” he said, though he recognizes that getting fluids and IV equipment to where they are needed in regions with weakened health care systems and logistical challenges is “easier said than done in the midst of the crisis.”

Other valuable information gleaned from the crisis includes how local customs and needs influence transmission of the disease, said Baden. People steal blankets covered with vomit because they need to stay warm; they say goodbye to the dead by hugging their bodies. In addition, patients who are dying or have extremely high blood levels of the virus are likely the ones who put health workers most at risk.

Health workers treating Ebola patients have learned the importance of carefully following all the right steps in putting on and taking off protective hazmat suits. “We’re only as safe as the people around us,” Baden said, noting that health workers rely on their fellow workers in the field to follow safety precautions to avoid spreading the disease.

Baden stressed the importance of sticking to the known facts about Ebola and avoiding unreliable information on the Internet. The issue of quarantines for health workers returning to the U.S. has scared off potential aid workers, he said. “It’s a distraction that gets in the way of the main event and interferes with progress of stopping the outbreak. There is a need to separate fact from fiction.”

Learn more

Treatment as Prevention: Can We Treat Our Way Out of the AIDS Epidemic? (The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health, December 1, 2014)

Ebola in the news (HSPH News)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ebola Information

World Health Organization’s Ebola fact sheet

–Marge Dwyer