Washington, D.C., 2 December 2014 (PAHO/WHO) — Are countries in the Americas prepared for the possible introduction of Ebola? What lessons have been learned from West Africa's experiences in managing suspected cases of the disease? These were among the questions addressed at a webinar titled "Facts over fear: Ebola preparedness in the Americas," hosted by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) and the American Public Health Association (APHA) on 2 December.
Participants discussed the ongoing epidemic in West Africa, which has seen more than 16,000 cases and 7,000 deaths from Ebola. Participants also discussed Brazil's experience in managing a suspected case and the handling in the United States of four Ebola cases in recent months.
"So far, there have been no Ebola cases in Latin America or the Caribbean, but the countries are working on preparedness with PAHO/WHO support," said Francisco Becerra, PAHO Assistant Director.
"We are working to prepare for Ebola right now, but other diseases like influenza and chikungunya are always testing our capacity," said Sylvain Aldighieri, chief of PAHO's International Health Regulations and Epidemic Alert and Response Unit. "The capacities that we develop now for Ebola and the lessons learned from this experience will serve us in other emergencies in the future."
In coordination with national health authorities, PAHO/WHO recently began mobilizing missions to Latin American and the Caribbean countries to help them prepare to detect, treat and control the spread of any imported cases of Ebola. The Organization will follow up with technical cooperation based on each country's individual needs, said Aldighieri.
The missions are part of larger efforts by PAHO/WHO to help its member countries in the Americas ensure they have the necessary policies, procedures and human resource capacity in place to manage any introduction of Ebola. This work has also included virtual and in-person training in preparedness, risk communication, and logistics as well as the dissemination of norms and standards for infection control, disease surveillance, use of personal protective equipment, collection and handling of highly pathogenic laboratory samples, and laboratory procedures.
Ron St. John, PAHO/WHO Incident Manager for Ebola, noted that the epidemic in West Africa is "the largest outbreak of this disease that we have ever seen." He said that although the increase in cases has slowed, the epidemic is not over.
APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin described the United States' handling of four Ebola patients (two imported cases and two cases of local transmission) and three humanitarian workers who were medically evacuated after falling ill with the disease.
Lessons learned from these experiences included the importance of testing protocols, carrying out contact tracing, and ensuring community education to manage fear of the disease.
Cicero de Góes, a member of Brazil's Public Health Response and Emergencies team, described his country's experience with a suspected Ebola case in October. The patient had traveled from Guinea 19 days before presenting symptoms. Although the case was eventually discarded, contact tracing identified 131 contacts who were successfully monitored.
Kate Hurley, Director of Intensive Nursing at St. Patrick Hospital in Montana, described working in an Ebola treatment unit in Sierra Leone and challenges ranging from communication with patients to limited resources and personnel.