Hawaii ‘highly vulnerable,’ so prepare now

LIHUE — The Ebola virus has come a long way since it was first detected in humans living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan in 1976, said state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park.

Over the past 10 months, the deadly disease spread from a single case in Guinea to six countries in West Africa before arriving in Spain and the United States through infected Ebola patients.

But there’s something else, Park said, that is spreading faster than the disease itself: the fear of it.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t be afraid because fear can be a healthy thing — you just need to be able to use it. And you should respect this virus, but you need to understand how to protect yourself,” Park said during a recent interview with The Garden Island, after she toured Kauai medical facilities and spoke with medical professionals about the rare and deadly disease from West Africa.

“Fear is an important thing, and it can undermine all of the good that you’re trying to work,” Park said. “It can be an uphill battle, if you don’t address the fear issues by educating people, by talking things out and finding out what it is that people are really afraid of.”

One of the more difficult tasks, she said, is debunking common misconceptions about the disease, which is spread through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids and can only be spread once an infected person becomes sick.

Early symptoms of the virus, which can appear from two to 21 days after an initial exposure, include a fever, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, muscle pain and unexpected bleeding or bruising, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hawaii is at “a very low risk” for an Ebola outbreak, Park said.

“We may have one or two come down the road, but it just gives you the risk factor in terms of probability, but you know, it only takes one,” Park said. “We’re a highly vulnerable state — we’re in the middle of the Pacific, we’re far from many places and we don’t have the depth of the sub-specialists and resources that the Mainland might have — so this is why we prepare. We take advantage of the time that we have.”

Park urged medical professionals to review and practice existing infection control policies constantly so they are comfortable and prepared when a possible infected patient arrives.

“It’s not enough to have the infection control policies to say we have the materials in place, if your staff has never used them, if you’ve never used them yourself, or if you use them infrequently,” Park said. “To say that everybody goes through their requisite training every year, which is probably in a classroom, is not enough anymore.”

Though there is a low likelihood the Ebola virus will make its way here, Park said residents should heed hand-washing recommendations to reduce the chances of catching any infectious disease.

“If we sit back right now, or if we let our fears take over and we don’t act, we only have ourselves to blame when we get that suspect patient, and God forbid it’s an Ebola-infected patient, and then we have cases here,” Park said.

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