The World Health Organization announced Wednesday that the death toll from the West Africa Ebola outbreak has risen to 1,350. The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) hosted a media briefing Wednesday morning with various leaders of the city’s public health branches to outline the plans for the “very low’’ likelihood that the deadly Ebola virus disease (EVD) would make it to Massachusetts.
“While the risk to our residents is very low, it is always better to prepare so that we can appropriately identify and care for suspect cases and work with the community to prevent further illness,’’ said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) at the briefing. “We want a well-coordinated plan in place in the event a case of EVD is found in the city.’’
In an interview this afternoon with Boston.com, Dr. Ferrer outlined the various city organizations that have coordinated their effort and planned response if there were to be a suspect or confirmed case of Ebola in Massachusetts. Boston Emergency Medical Services, Massachusetts Port Authority, as well as the US Customs and Border Protection at the airport are all prepared in case of an outbreak.
“Lots of people travel to places in West Africa and have no exposure to Ebola, so it doesn’t mean if you have syumptoms of illness that your symptoms necessarily correlate with symptoms of Ebola,’’ said Dr. Ferrer. “You’re only going to transmit when you’re in very close contact with someone who is already showing signs of illness.’’
Since March 2014, more than 1,000 people have been infected with Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, while one case has been reported as a result of air travel in Nigeria. With the international call for health care workers to travel to Africa to help treat the victims and help contain the spread of this deadly virus, the Boston public health officials are simply preparing for the risk of exposure that medical outreach and travel carries with it. The virus is spread when an individual is exposed to the bodily fluids of a person infected with Ebola.
People most likely to have contact with Ebola are health care workers treating Ebola patients, as well as family members or friends who are interacting with an infected individual on an intimate level, said Dr. Ferrer. “We obviously applaud those people who go to help. Health care workers who are leaving from the United States are leaving with a lot of protective equipment, so we have a lot of confidence that they will remain safe.’’
Whether people are traveling for business, personal, or volunteer obligations, no one is required to notify the public health department of their travel, or even of their return, unless they begin to display symptoms (a fever of at least 100.4 degrees Farenheit), and were at risk of unprotected exposure to an infected person. If a suspect case does arise, health officials said that individual will be isolated at a local hospital and treated with supportive care while tests are done to determine whether or not the individual has contracted the Ebola virus.
An American, Dr. Kent Brantly, is now recovering from the deadly virus in Atlanta for the 21-day incubation period after treating patients in Africa. A Boston case would undergo a similar treatment in a local hospital. Only a two Americans have contracted Ebola so far after caring for infected patients. According to the World Health Organization, at least 170 African health workers treating patients with Ebola have contracted it themselves. More than 80 of them have died.
Health officials report that this six-month-long outbreak of Ebola is the largest ever observed, and they expect it will continue into the fall. This is the first time the disease, which results in a hemorrhagic fever, has ever been observed in West Africa. It is also the first time the disease has reached densely populated urban areas. The case mortality rate for Ebola varies between 50 and 90 percent.
This morning’s media briefing in Boston was the first of many public awareness campaign steps city health officials are taking in order to prepare Massachusetts and Boston in the case of an outbreak.
“As a result of years of practice, investment and responding to real emergencies, hospitals in Boston are well equipped and trained to appropriately and safely care for a suspect case of EVD,’’ said John Erwin, executive director of the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals at the briefing. “To ensure the best possible preparations, however, hospitals will need the support of city, state and federal health officials. That’s why this planning effort is so important.’’
Part of preventing the virus from arriving in the United States is discouraging Americans from traveling to the affected countries and possibly carrying the virus back home with them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued a Level 3 travel advisory, warning US residents to avoid all nonessential travel to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
“Every successful preparedness campaign requires the support and strong involvement of the community,’’ said Atyia Martin, director of the BPHC Public Health Preparedness Program. “We will work hard to make sure that residents have the information and resources that they need to stay informed and healthy. That is what this effort is all about.’’
Learn more about the Ebola and the city’s public awareness campaign at bphc.org/ebola.