Headline — 17 October 2014 — by Rowland A. Parks
Belize not ready for Ebola

BELIZE CITY- The outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) that has been ravaging multiple countries in West Africa, where over 4,000 persons have died, is projected to become worse. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that by December, the number of persons contracting the disease will rise to between 5,000 to 10,000 new cases per week, as compared to about 1,000 per week during the last four weeks – a figure which reportedly includes suspected, confirmed and probable cases.

In Belize, officials at the Ministry of Health have begun a late scramble to put in place the necessary contingency plans to cope with the eventuality of Ebola on Belize’s shores.

Although Belize is considered to be at a low risk for a spread of the virus, the Ministry of Health has nonetheless indicated that the threat that Ebola poses is real.

The Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Peter Allen, told Amandala today, Thursday, that his ministry has approached the Ministry of Finance for $100,000 to buy a containment unit. Dr. Allen said this containment unit could be a Mennonite house that would be specially equipped to house Ebola patients.

In addition to that, Dr. Allen said, they have also identified a space at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital that could be isolated and used to treat Ebola patients.

Dr. Allen said that by tomorrow, Friday, the Ministry of Health will begin training sessions, “and everyone will be trained, from Customs officials to the cleaners,” he noted.

“People are already trained in infection-control procedures,” Dr. Allen informed.

He added, “The estimate of the risks is done by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Caribbean Public Health Agency.”

Ebola, international experts say, is only a plane flight away from most cities in the world.

Dr. Allen, however, told Amandala that Belize “doesn’t have any direct flight from the affected areas in West Africa.”

Belize will begin the process of screening passengers arriving on international flights, although the specific date for the start of the screening was not mentioned: “We are seeking the cooperation of the airlines, so as to get a 24-hour advance notice of who is arriving on board flights. Once the plane lands, we will also conduct screening,” said Dr. Allen.

Dr. Allen said that since 2012, there has been a series of regulations that have been put in place internationally through the Cooperative Agreement for Preventing the Spread of Communicable Disease through Air Travel, and he noted, “the Philip Goldson International Airport scored very well.”

“There is always going to be risks in the case of Ebola,” Dr. Allen added, and he commented that “80 percent is what you do for yourself.”

Presently, Belize does not have the necessary protective gear that should be used by healthcare personnel to handle Ebola patients.

“There is not enough protective clothing for all the countries of the region,” Dr. Allen said, “there is a stockpile in Panama.”

He said that since this latest outbreak of Ebola, there has been somewhat of a shortage of protective clothing on the market, and that a suit that used to cost a couple hundred dollars is now selling for as much as $1,500 U.S.

Belize still has the protective clothing that was obtained to combat the H1 N1 influenza. Dr. Allen admitted, however, that these are “not quite of the standard the WHO have in place.”

Amandala asked Dr. Allen whether Belize has the laboratory capability to test for the Ebola virus: “We cannot do the test here in Belize. In the Americas, there are only 3 labs that can perform the test. Two of those labs are in the United States and the other one is in Canada,” he replied.

“We wouldn’t wait for a lab test to treat Ebola; as soon as someone develops the symptoms, we would start treatment,” said Dr. Allen.

Yesterday, Wednesday, Belize participated in a video conference which featured a presentation by the Pan American Health Organization on the current Ebola outbreak. All the countries of Meso-America were represented. The conference was facilitated by the Inter-American Development Bank.

In a summary of the conference, Dr. Allen informed that, “all the countries, including Belize, are coordinating efforts at prevention and control very closely. While the risk to Belize is considered low, the risk is real, nonetheless.”

“The Minister of Health, Pablo Marin, has called for an urgent and coordinated response and the Ministry of Health is leading an interagency team which this week is coordinating training opportunities for all officers at the PGIA, including immigration, customs, BAHA and OIRSA on the most current screening and surveillance techniques. Public health inspectors will also form part of the team providing screening of visitors at the international airport. MOH and KHMH staff are strengthening and reinforcing all infection control procedures and providing further training in the safe and effective use of personal protective equipment which is being procured through the Pan American Health Organization,”   he said.

According to the WHO, “The Ebola virus causes an acute illness which is often fatal if untreated. The EVD [Ebola Virus Disease] first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in Nzara, Sudan, and the other in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter occurred in a village near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.”

Ebola, the WHO reports, is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found ill or dead in the rainforest.

“Humans are not infectious until they develop symptoms. First symptoms are the sudden onset of fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver functions and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stool)” the WHO report on Ebola said.

As of Sunday, there were 8,997 cases of the disease, and it has so far caused the deaths of 4,493 people, according to the WHO.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said today, Thursday, “I am bitterly disappointed by the response… I am disappointed in the international community for not moving faster.” Annan made the remarks on the BBC programme Newsnight.

“If the crisis had hit some other region, it probably would have been handled very differently. In fact, when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe,” said the Ghanaian diplomat who led the United Nations for a decade until 2006.

In the United States, two nurses are being treated at Emory Hospital in Texas. The nurses, Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson, were among about 70 staff members at Texas Presbyterian Hospital who treated Thomas Duncan, the first person who was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Duncan had traveled to the US from Liberia in West Africa.

He was treated with an experimental drug but succumbed to the deadly disease that has a reported 70 percent mortality rate in this latest outbreak.

According to a New York Times article dated today, Thursday, at a Congressional hearing held today about the mishandled Ebola cases in the United States, federal health officials said that a nurse with Ebola would be transferred to a specialized unit at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, to ease the burden of the Dallas hospital where she became infected.

Health officials said that the hospital, Texas Health Presbyterian, is strained in its efforts to monitor dozens of other healthcare workers who may have been exposed to the virus, and that the nurse, Nina Pham, was being transferred at the hospital’s request.

“They are now dealing with at least 50 healthcare workers who may potentially have been exposed,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “That makes it quite challenging to operate, and we felt it would be more prudent to focus on caring for any patients who come in with symptoms,” he said.

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