One of the more interesting aspects of the constant media coverage of the latest Ebola outbreak has been watching how developed nations like the United States, Britain, and Canada assume that the entire world is Just Like Them. The Seattle Times had a charming example of this yesterday, with American doctors questioning the CDC guidelines for how to care for an Ebola patient in America. An example of the ignorance on display comes from Tulsa, Oklahoma emergency physician Justin Fairless, who says that health care workers in West African nations
are wearing the highest level of protection, but the CDC recommendation lets us go down to the lowest level of protection.
Now, the CDC has repeatedly said that caring for patients in African nations is quite different than caring for patients in America, Canada, other developed nations, but apparently Dr. Fairless and others need a pictorial show-and-tell to understand that not everyone lives and works in a state-of-the-art world.
But first, a bit of description to set the stage for the pictures you are about to see. (Note: There are no sick or dead bodies in the following photographs.) This is from a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting report on maternal/fetal care in Guinea, published in February of 2014, before the international community was aware of the Ebola outbreak:
“The biggest problems at Donka are no electricity, no water, no equipment, no sanitation and very high rates of infection,” said Bintu Cisse, adjunct midwife supervisor, who has worked at Donka National Hospital for 20 years … External support provides some operational assistance, but Donka lacks basic facilities due to the inefficiency of Guinea’s under-performing infrastructure … Inside the maternity ward operating room, Cisse pointed out that the equipment did not work and doctors used suspended basins of water and a mixture of chlorine to sanitize. The main light sources were open windows—outside garbage was burning.
Cisse is describing the largest medical center in Guniea, Donka Hospital, which is also the university teaching hospital for the country.
This is what their isolation unit looks like:
Donka Hospital Isolation Tents. Cellou Binani/AFP/Getty Images.
Those are tents. Here’s what those tents look like on the inside:
When patients are inside, they are lined up on cots, one after another. There is nothing separating the patients from anyone, or anything. There is no airflow system–isolation wards in regions where Ebola is active tend to work by setting up large barriers to prevent people from getting close enough to worry about contagion; this could be large plastic sheeting, it could be fences that indicate the line at which people should not pass.
This is what an isolation unit looks like at your average, developed world, fully-equipped hospital:
Isolation room at Wellington Hospital, New Zealand.
So, as you can see, Dr. Fairless, and others, things are just a little bit different in countries where the GDP is more than USD 6 billion a year.
A MSF worker suits up to care for Ebola patients.
The major difference in treatment, aside from already-discussed issues
, is who
is in isolation. More specifically, in places like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, while patients are isolated from other people in order to curtail infection, the health care workers are the ones “in isolation”–they’re the ones who are kitted up in bunny suits, in full Tyvek, layers of gloves, and the whole nine yards. Because: see above. The effort here is to keep the HCW in a protective environment to limit transmission to the worker, because it’s impossible to keep the patients inside a protective environment, due to the economy, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of ability because there’s no technology, there’s no power.
Isolation units in America and other developed countries, on the other hand, function to keep the patient inside isolation; patients are isolated from others to curtail infection, and that includes being “in isolation”: that is, the protective bubble that bunny suits and Tyvek create for HCWs in Guinea, etc, is extended around the patient in the form of negative air pressure rooms and glass walls.
In that sort of environment, the basics of gloves, gown, and mask are more than sufficient to care for a patient with Ebola–or any other highly infective agent. Which is why that’s what the CDC recommendations are; because technology and care levels are different, and the basic approach to isolating and isolation can change.
It’s also worth remembering that bunny suits and Tyvek weren’t always around when people were fighting Ebola. Here’s what Peter Piot was wearing in 1976, when Ebola was first recognized:
Peter Piot wearing protective gear in Yambuku, 1976.
That’s how the outbreak was stopped in 1976. In conditions that in many ways were worse than in the pictures shown above.
The doctors and other health care workers in that Seattle Times piece should be ashamed of themselves, demanding bunny suits and Tyvek and full protective gear when not only is it unnecessary, it’s a waste of money. But more than that, and even more than the myopic view of the world that appears to assume everywhere is just like their tidy and neat and well-staffed and well-maintained medical center, it illustrates the continued “me me me” reaction people in the developed world have around Ebola.
…after all, you don’t hear anyone suggesting that full isolation suites be sent to Guinea, or Sierra Leone, or Liberia, so that those countries can revert to the simpler CDC recommendations, do you?