Ebola unlikely in Alaska, but SPH still prepares

Although only two cases of Ebola virus disease have been diagnosed in the United States, both in Dallas, Texas, South Peninsula Hospital and local health providers have started training and developed guidelines in the event patients in Homer develop possible Ebola symptoms. 

Ebola is unlikely to spread to Alaska, according to a health advisory alert issued Oct. 4 by the Alaska Division of Public Health, Section of Epidemiology.

“Due to the overall low number of Alaskans who either have family ties to the Ebola-affected countries or who are deploying to these countries from Alaska to offer medical assistance, the risk of Ebola arriving in Alaska is lower than the risk for the states with large numbers of people returning from those countries,” the alert said. “But the risk to Alaska is real.”

The Pandemic Flu Committee at SPH has been actively meeting for the past two weeks in 

regard to Ebola preparedness, and staff-wide education started this week to help all employees stay informed on prevention, identification and treatment protocols, said SPH spokeperson Derotha Ferraro.

“Knowledge is power, so education and preparedness are our current priorities,” said Leslie Haynes, SPH director of quality improvement.

Dr. Larry Reynolds, the hospital infection control physician has been doing mandatory employee training on preventing the spread of Ebola and other contagious diseases, Ferraro said.

Complicating the identification of Ebola is that Alaska also is in flu season, and Ebola, influenza A (H1N1 virus) and a third contagious disease, enterovirus 68, share some symptoms, such as fever and body aches.

For Ebola, SPH follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Ferraro said. The criteria for suspicion of the illness are fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, lack of appetite, and in some cases, bleeding, as well as recent travel within 21 days to Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and other countries where Ebola transmission has been reported or contact with someone who has a confirmed case of Ebola.

Ferraro said if someone meets those criteria, he or she should go to the emergency room immediately. However, patients should call ahead at 235-8101 before their arrival so the hospital can prepare for their visit and if needed admit them through a private entrance to avoid public areas.

Influenza A and enterorvirus D68 also are serious contagious diseases that could affect Alaskans. Flu can cause mild to severe illness and in some cases lead to death. Symptoms include fever or feeling feverish, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.

The best way to prevent the flu is frequent hand washing and getting a flu vaccine. Vaccines are available at Safeway Pharmacy, for qualified patients at the Public Health Center and at Homer Medical Center. Flu shot clinics are held Mondays at Homer Medical Center; call 235-8586 to schedule a time and to avoid a wait. About 200 flu shots also will be given at the Kachemak Bay Rotary Health Fair on Nov. 1.

Enterovirus D68, also known as EV-D68, is a contagious respiratory illness resembling the common cold, with symptoms including sneezing, a runny nose and cough. Some patients may get a severe cough, have difficulty breathing and develop a rash. Patients also may have fever and wheezing.

The SPH infection control team will be at the Health Fair on Nov. 1 to share information. The hospital also will keep people informed through its website at sphosp.org and personal interactions at out-patient clinics.

“We plan to keep the community informed of new developments, prevention efforts and important information,” Ferraro said.

The Division of Epidemiology has set up a website with more information on Ebola at www.epi.hss.state.ak.us/id/dod/ebola/default.htm

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.