Friday, October 16, 2015

Health Worker Nonchalance About Ebola?

The Ebola virus
Recent reports of two nurses becoming infected with Ebola begs the question of whether they were lax in following infection-control protocols. Even if that's true (and it may not be) the bigger mystery is healthcare community's apparent nonchalance. TV's talking heads are generally not alarmed. NBC medical correspondent Nancy Snyderman reportedly snuck out to get some take-out food. Experts at the CDC apparently okayed one mildly feverish nurse's request that she be allowed to travel.

What gives?

First off, how does Ebola spread?

 Ebola is "filovirus" (so named because it has a uniquely filamentous appearance) that, once introduced into the body, can attach to and invade numerous types of human cells. Getting into the human body occurs from the injection of infected blood (such as a inadvertent needle stick from a person with Ebola) or hand-borne "self-inoculation" of a patient's body fluids into the mucus membranes. That's typically the mouth, nose or eyes. 

"Self-inoculation" of a virus by rubbing the eyes or touching the nose/mouth has been a long-known means of spreading infection. Because humans unconsciously touch their facial mucous membranes frequently during the course of a day, eye goggles and facemasks are not only a barrier to airborne virus (such as regular cold viruses), but also act as a reminder to keep your fingers away from your face and eyes (which is more important with the Ebola virus, which is not airborne). 

After the inoculation and during the initial stages of invasion and replication, there aren't enough viral particles to pose a significant person-to-person transmission risk. It's only when the infection becomes overwhelming (which is heralded by a fever) that the virus makes its appearance in body fluids, including blood, tears, saliva, sweat, diarrhea and vomit. Healthcare workers cannot avoid handling the sick patient or their bedclothes, and that's when accidental needle sticks and unconscious touching of their face - i.e. mucus membranes - leads to transmission of the virus to a new victim.

What are healthcare workers' attitudes about infections?

Getting health care workers to pay attention to the inadvertent spread of infection in the course of patient care has been a topic of research for decades.  It's not like they don't know how viruses move from person to person.  Rather, failure to act on that knowledge is a result of poor adherence, insufficient resources, staffing problems, lack of culture change, no impetus to change, and issues related to staff and patient education.  Even with intense education, attitudes may shift by a only a few percentage points. It's not uncommon for up to a quarter of health care workers to not follow basic infection control protocols after a teaching intervention.

How well do health care workers educate lay-persons?

Even when patients are in contact isolation for other reasons, healthcare workers do a bad job of dealing with the concerns of family members or educating their patients about its importance. And it doesn't help that nurse "burnout" can be an independent risk factor for the inadvertent transmission of infection to patients.

While reports like this portray the importance of public education, it's fair to say that the gap between the "stay calm" Ebola expertise of organizations like the CDC and the growing alarm of the lay public is significant.

The Population Health Blog's take?

Healthcare providers have cared for patients with other serious infectious diseases, and their attitudes to dealing with Ebola are not new. While the PHB is unaware of the details of how the two nurses described above contracted the disease, it was just a matter of time until someone got infected. 

If more primary Ebola cases occur in the U.S., we can expect more healthcare workers to contract the disease. A nonchalance toward infectious disease has been a part of the medical landscape for decades.  While the risks associated with Ebola are higher (a purported mortality rate as high as 70%), this is another virus bumping into decades-long patterns of imperfect human behaviors.

While the public is extremely concerned about the specter of Ebola, expert infectious disease talking-heads are well-acquainted with the above data.  They are not surprised that nurses are coming down with Ebola.  Unfortunately, that unsurprised expertise combined with a legacy of poor lay-public education is coming across as incompetence. That's especially true when clinical judgment about a fever leads to a plane-load of passengers being exposed to a sick patient's body fluids. The public deserves better.

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