Health Officials Vigilant Against Ebola


To date, in Massachusetts, we are fortunate there have been no cases of Ebola virus, and the risk remains very low.

Ebola was first identified in the 1970s, and since that time there have been sporadic and limited outbreaks. This year, 2014, the Ebola outbreak has reached epidemic proportions in West Africa. The U.S. has treated several citizens evacuated from West Africa after contracting Ebola while caring for patients. One person exposed in Africa traveled to Texas and became symptomatic four days after arrival, was eventually treated, and then, sadly, died.

Since that time, two healthcare workers have been confirmed with Ebola. We are taking this very seriously, and I want to thank the many organizations and public officials that are working to stem this epidemic, including many healthcare providers, scientists, and public-safety professionals.

While Ebola is a very serious disease, it is one that health experts — and our medical community here in Massachusetts — understand and are prepared for. Ebola is less communicable than some other infectious diseases, as it can only be spread through close, direct contact with an infected, symptomatic person’s bodily fluids. As such, Ebola can be contained and prevented with careful, stringent application of core public-health measures. With our clinical partners, we intend to combat and treat Ebola very aggressively and provide all necessary supportive care in the highly unlikely chance a case is identified.

As such, we have taken the following proactive steps to ensure that our public-health and healthcare system partners are prepared:

• The DPH has established a dedicated Ebola webpage (www.mass.gov/dph/ebola) to provide a single reference point for clinical advisories, guidance, and links to information provided by the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO).

• The department has issued a series of guidance documents, developed by DPH and/or the CDC, to address questions related to management of suspect cases, screening of returning travelers, laboratory guidance for the handling of suspected specimens, as well as preparedness checklists.

• Our Bureau of Infectious Disease and the state Public Health Laboratory (SPHL) are in regular contact with their counterparts at the CDC, and that contact has increased as the department has intensified Ebola preparations. Additionally, the department remains in close contact with other local and state agencies and professional associations.

• DPH has held a series of statewide conference calls with partners that include hospitals, community health centers, emergency medical services, ambulatory-care organizations, colleges and universities, local boards of health, and public safety.

• The BID Epidemiology Program routinely performs outbreak investigation, contact tracing, coordination with local health authorities and SPHL, and, when necessary, coordinates isolation and quarantine procedures.

• The Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory one of only a handful of state laboratories which the CDC has approved to perform preliminary testing for Ebola, with confirmatory testing performed by the CDC.

• To prepare for the possibility of receiving a suspect or confirmed case of Ebola, we have advised hospitals to review their infection-control protocols and provide preparedness trainings. DPH plans to send staff out into the field to partner with hospitals and their frontline staff to support implementation of these critically important protocols and trainings. The CDC is also stepping up its training and outreach to health care providers.

We should not let our guard down; preparation must continue to be a top priority. While the chance of Ebola transmission occurring in Massachusetts remains low, we continue to be proactive and comprehensive in our preparedness efforts.

Cheryl Bartlett is commissioner of the state Department of Public Health (DPH). These comments were condensed from her testimony last Thursday before the Joint Committee on Public Health Ebola Preparedness.

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