Whether you’re traveling or at home, the first trick to surviving Ebola or some other communicable disease is to develop solid personal hygiene habits.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. “I have those already, right?” Well, a cornerstone to complete personal hygiene is washing your hands properly on a regular basis. Okay, you might say you know how to do that already. I would say probably not.
Useful Skills and Experience
As a freshman in college, I considered the medical field as a possibility. I took a nurse’s assistant course because I was curious about what went on behind those hospital brick walls. That’s when I met Sister “Marta” at a local Catholic hospital and that’s when I first learned to wash my hands properly.
The Catholic nuns ran the hospital including the hospital administrator position. They were a serious bunch. You didn’t mess around when Sister “Marta” gave you an instruction, and you had better do exactly as she said or you would incur penalties. She was serious, but knowledgeable and very competent. I found out later that she had a sense of humor too.
The good Sister showed us exactly how to wash our hands properly by her personal demonstration. I practice this everyday now. I obtained my nurse’s aide certification and later became a certified EMT (Emergency Medical Technician).
I worked in two hospitals. One was a Catholic hospital in a rural district where I did everything from patient care, surgery prep, emergency room, and from time to time assisted the pathologist with autopsies. I transferred later to a trauma center and worked exclusively as an EMT. Suffice it to say I gained skills and experience. I learned a lot about people and myself.
Unfortunately, since then I have observed the decline of proper hand washing among medical professionals. They either ignore the basics by failing to wash their hands regularly and properly or by using popular chemical gels to “clean” their hands.
Ebola and the Americas
As far as we know today, Ebola has not arrived in Latin America yet. I say yet, because it’s just a matter of time. There was a suspected case in Brazil but the person tested negative for the virus. Several Latin countries have set up organizations to anticipate the spread of the disease. So far, parts of Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile have taken actions.
Brazil is probably the best equipped since they have studied dengue-based viral hemorrhagic fevers for years. The University of Rio de Janeiro has a virus diagnostic center that performs tests called the Instituto de Pesquisa Clinica Evandro Chagas.
Here’s a video with parts of a presentation by military personal to the National Defense University last week. The panel points out big problems of migration within Central American as well as immigration from Central America to the U.S.A., but part of the topic addressed Ebola. Please keep in mind that these officers are trained to think and plan with worse case scenarios, nevertheless take a look. I think it speaks for itself.
So far three cases have been confirmed in the U.S.A. which have already been plastered all over the news. That is the case of a Liberian citizen who arrived in Dallas, Texas to visit relatives and two of the nurses who cared for him in the hospital. The Liberian is deceased.
The first nurse to positively test is in serious condition but has survived so far. A third person that cared for the deceased Liberian has tested positive for Ebola.
There are four specially designed hospitals with bio-containment units in the U.S.A.; Emory University Hospital’s Infectious Disease Unit in Atlanta, St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Montana, Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
As of today, the two infected nurses have been sent to Atlanta and Bethesda. Maximum total units available are 13. Perhaps the CDC (Center of Disease Control headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia) has changed its mind on its previous assertion that most hospitals are equipped to handle Ebola. We’ll see.
The Ebola Challenge
There’s plenty of information on the net now regarding Ebola, so I won’t go into detail about that subject but here’s a short version. You can read all about it here from the CDC. Here’s a brief history of Ebola and an Ebola timeline.
Here is what we know about Ebola and how it is transmitted to another host – that’s you.
It’s an aggressive virus that literally seeks to continue its life at all costs. Therefore, as the unfortunate person’s (host) symptoms increase, the virus creates additional fluids in the body, i.e. sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, and yes it even tries to escape and transfer to another host through bleeding.
In the late stages bleeding can occur by the rupture of small capillaries (blood vessels) throughout the body including the skin. The host literally can sweat blood if they survive to a late stage. Sort of like science fiction, only it’s not.
As we know now, there are five species of Ebola identified, of which the Zaire species is the most lethal with a potential 90% death rate from past outbreaks.
The current 2014 West African outbreak is the Zaire. The CDC data says the death rate is about 53%, but the reporting from the four most affected West African countries has a undetermined margin of error since there is no way to know if all fatalities are reported.
Containing the ever expanding “dirty” field that Ebola can produce is the name of the game to prevent the virus from spreading to another host. Here’s the current CDC manual for infection control.
Witnessing an Ebola victim is not for the faint of heart, so I decided not to place any of those nasty pictures on the internet here.
Fortunately, I have no Ebola experience, and I hope I never do. I have cared for lots of different folks with different ailments including communicable diseases which I had to “suit up” for but not Ebola. There are lots of really bad ways to leave the planet, but Ebola is definitely in the top 10.
Of course, the thing is not to panic but use your head and start developing habits that protect yourself. Other than avoiding persons live or dead who have the disease, the first line of defense is proper personal hygiene, and the cornerstone is proper hand washing.
The rise of Ebola could result in positive steps for health officials to pay more attention to the basics. Now, it’s common knowledge that hand washing is the first step in disease prevention and keeping you healthy, but it was not always so.
Unfortunately it was not a common practice in the 19th century. In the middle of that century, medical professionals gave little thought to it. Hospital conditions became so bad that at one point many felt that visiting the hospital was a one way ticket. That perception lasted to my grandparents’ generation.
In the mid-19th century, an Austrian-Hungarian physician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis witnessed deplorable practices in the local hospitals. To the chagrin of his colleagues, he insisted that hand washing must be practiced in the medical profession as a habit to prevent spread of disease. Here’s a short history of how Semmelweis, at great personal cost, introduced hand washing to the medical establishment. Also, here’s a short history of personal hygiene.
In case you’re wondering, here is the proper way to wash your hands.
It’s really friction that cleans your hands not chemicals or water. Water is the agent to wash away the organisms that are dislodge from your skin by friction. That is why I think proper hand washing is superior to any chemical including an alcohol agent even though there are studies pointing to such chemicals as superior.
Other studies have shown that wide use of these antimicrobial gels or agents may be creating more virulent organisms that become antibiotic resistant because of mutation. Remember, we have “good” bacteria in our system to fight off harmful bacteria and viruses.
My recent visits to the hospital to see a relative of mine does not give me assurance that the proper anti-sepsis techniques are either taught or practiced widely by the medical establishment. I see a lot of chemical jells being used in place of proper hand washing.
Proper training and consistent practice is the best safeguard against the spread of any disease – and hand washing is the foundation. Here’s some more information on hand hygiene and here are some infectious disease prevention tips in no particular order.
Prevention Tips at Home or Abroad
- Do your homework by locating the nearest and best place that treats infectious disease – particularly dengue fever. It may not be the local hospital. It could be a local clinic or even a physician’s office depending on your location. Here’s a list of WHO collaborating centers.
- Make contact with a local health professional that can provide you with timely and accurate information by phone or email regarding current local conditions.
- Keep a mobile stash of things in your house or car similar to a hurricane checklist.
- Make sure you have access to plenty of clean water for drinking.
- Make sure you have access to a supply of liquid soap, water, plastic bags, and paper towels for cleaning and disposal.
- Make sure you have rubber gloves, goggles and surgical masks if available. A hood would be best. So far Ebola is not considered an airborne disease, but other infectious diseases can be.
- Be a little obsessive by not touching surfaces with your bare hands, especially around bathrooms (including water faucets) and public places.
- If you’re traveling and have no car, identify the means of transportation that you have available to make a quick exit. Try to avoid crowds if possible.
- Most public, retail, restaurant, and fast food bathrooms are the dirtiest of the bunch. If you have to use a bathroom while traveling anywhere, try hotels, banks, and government buildings. You’ll have to ask the bank teller. They usually have regular professional cleaning maintenance.
- Load the free app from HealthMap. This is a good global source for infectious disease reports.
- Do whatever it takes to boost your immune system. Consult your health practitioner or M.D.
- Properly wash your hands frequently. Print out diagrams of hand washing techniques and post them near your sink for reference.
Over the next several months we’ll see how well hospitals and medical institutions deal with the spread of Ebola. Although the CDC has been reliable in the past, it’s still a government bureaucracy and therefore subject to political influence. There are some very good people working very hard there to get ahead of the next thing – but, it’s really up to you to obtain as much information from as many sources as you can to analyze the situation.
We may see some real challenges to our health system with resources stretch to their limit. Hopefully we’ll also see some positive improvements in our health system as a result. We’re globally linked now, so these outbreaks like Ebola and other various viruses and bacteria will continue.
Again, there’s no need to go crazy. This is not a Hollywood movie – it’s not “end of days.”
If you have a normal immune system, then that system protects you silently everyday from millions of bacteria and viruses. I remember my microbiology class where we cultured Petri dishes with swabs from everywhere on campus, including the vending machines. We cultured some wild stuff and experimented on what would kill it. Just prepare and take some action so you can weather the temporary storm that may come.
The nurses in Dallas probably became infected by some breach in protocol, we really don’t know. Perhaps they didn’t have the proper equipment or training or both.
Proper hand washing is one protocol. Start the practice of proper hand washing now since it may take you a while to develop the habit. Make it second nature to you. It will serve you well at home and abroad. It has me.
Imperfection is one nature of being human. Surviving Ebola is serious challenge. Diseases like Ebola are unforgiving, but by creating some healthy habits, you can improve your chances. So far in my travels, I have not become seriously ill (“knock on wood”). Besides luck, I attribute that to several factors, but proper and frequent hand washing is at the top of my list.