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Ebola outbreak here unlikely

Two officials of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center on Friday said they don’t believe a full-fledged, widespread Ebola outbreak will occur in New Mexico or the United States, but they are nonetheless preparing for the worst.

In a meeting of the HSC Board of Directors, Chancellor Paul Roth, who also serves as CEO of the UNM Health System, and Dr. Robert Bailey, associate dean for clinical affairs of the UNM School of Medicine, gave an update on the status of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the few cases that have surfaced in this country. Their focus was on preparation.

Only one death has occurred in the United States: A Liberian man who was contaminated in Africa died in Dallas last month. But thousands have died in the three African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

A pair of HSC staff members, Susan Garcia of Occupational and Professional Development, and Claudia Tchiloyans, the manager of epidemiology, modeled two protective suits health-care professionals in the United States would wear in direct dealings with Ebola patients.

Both suits require a partner – the buddy system – to help the wearer put them on and take them off. “Don” and “doff” are the correct terms, Roth said.

One, the “wet” suit, encloses the body from head to toe. It includes a full-head “striker” helmet with a built-in fan to ease heat buildup. It would be worn when dealing with a patient exhibiting clear signs of the virus. The “dry” suit, on the other hand, has an open neck area that facilitates ventilation. It also leaves the feet and ankles exposed.

Otherwise, the entire body is covered. It would be used in caring for an asymptomatic patient.

The World Health Organization, which is heading the response to the outbreak in West Africa, does not use either suit there because it is much too hot and humid. Even in New Mexico, they can only be worn for about 45 minutes because of the heat, Roth said.

Bailey, who gave the bulk of the presentation to the HSC directors, showed a series of slides, including one of a woman holding a fruit bat, the animal believed most responsible for spreading the Ebola virus.

Unlike Mexican brown bats with which many New Mexicans are familiar, the African fruit bat is huge, the size of a large bird of prey.

“They’re big enough to be a source of food,” Bailey said. “That’s the problem.”

The epidemic in the three countries is unusual, he said, because it is far away from previous outbreaks, which were in the Congo Basin, more than 2,000 miles from west Africa. The virus and disease got their name from the Ebola River, a tributary of central Africa’s Congo River.

Bailey said the most important things New Mexicans can do to help ward off the disease is wash their hands often and get a flu shot.

The initial symptoms of Ebola are flu-like, and could cause confusion among health-care responders or weaken the immune system, making it more susceptible to other illnesses.