This post was original published at One.org.

I was shocked to learn that the largest previous Ebola outbreak occurred in 1976 in Zaire: 318 confirmed cases and 280 deaths, but the current outbreak in West Africa has exceeded 4,200 cases with 2,200 deaths and growing. According to WHO estimates, 10,000 more lives will be lost before the virus is contained.

This is terrifying, I know. I remember feeling the same urgency over a decade ago. I was working with Bono on the ground in Africa, traveling across the U.S. on a listening tour, and I ultimately went to the White House to inform then-President George W. Bush that the U.S. desperately needed to address HIV/AIDS.

That appeal worked. President Bush boldly announced the unprecedented President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) during the State of the Union Address in 2003—a time when only 50,000 people in Africa had access to anti-retroviral therapy.

Today 12.8 million people have access to these drugs, and PEPFAR has provided HIV testing and counseling to 57 million people. In 2011 alone, PEPFAR provided services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV resulting in over 240,000 babies born free of HIV.

This is what the U.S. is capable of.

Today, Ebola is ravaging West Africa thanks to a confluence of circumstances. But the important message is, that we can address these circumstances, and we are not in this predicament for lack of a vaccine or anti-viral drug. The real issue are the significant cultural barriers to containing the outbreak, and lack of medical infrastructure in West Africa.

For example, people are avoiding treatment because of a widespread local doubt that Ebola even exists. There is fear that medical workers—foreign and local—are spreading the virus. Families do not want their loved ones to die in isolation, so they choose to keep them home.

Additionally, when an individual succumbs to the virus, burial practices of washing and kissing the body and then reusing the burial mat further spreads the disease because the recently deceased Ebola victim is actively shedding the virus from her skin.

For these reasons, changing culture by working within the culture will be imperative to our success. With HIV/AIDS, PEPFAR collaborated with traditional medical practitioners to deliver education and training, while also building an infrastructure that was sustainable. With HIV there were cultural practices like using leeches for bleeding that increased transmission of HIV outside safe sex practices or reusing needles. We had to address those practices in a culturally sensitive way.

We are also faced with a tragic lack of resources. The medical supplies and personnel needed to offer the routine intensive care necessary to support someone through a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola simply do not exist in West Africa.

President Obama has just announced an escalation of military involvement in Liberia only. He has committed 1,700 beds, to training of 500 health care workers and sending 400,000 home treatment kits. This will all be deployed by the Department of Defense via “command and control,” meaning they will deliver and direct the use of the resources to treat the sick.

While this is a major commitment, it is only for Liberia, but I suspect once we have boots on the ground, we will escalate even further.

As a former member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, I have spent a lot of time dealing with the tension between our responsibility to protect and the sovereignty of foreign nations. There are myriad issues at play.

Specifically, military involvement in humanitarian efforts must always be approached carefully. I truly believe that global health is a vital diplomatic instrument to strengthen confidence in America’s intent and ability to bring long-term improvements to citizen’s lives in other nations. The fight for global health can be the calling card of our nation’s character in the eyes of the world.

I also agree that our military comprises brilliant and compassionate minds and state of the art resources. But use of the military instead of an NGO or an organization like USAID comes at a price. There is always a tension between giving aid and the deeply instilled training to maintain order especially in a humanitarian situation when the rules of engagement prevent the military from firing unless fired upon.

We can win hearts and minds with military help, but we must do it in the right way – by building a sustainable infrastructure and empowering West Africans to continue the work. The commitment to build facilities and train local personnel is a good start.

Without containment, this epidemic will become a pandemic. The World community including the U.S. needs to help. However, help needs to be culturally sensitive and build lasting solutions. We cannot fish for them, we must teach them to fish.

Take action. Support these four organizations to help fight the Ebola outbreak. 

Bill Frist, M.D is a nationally acclaimed heart and lung transplant surgeon and former U. S. Senate Majority Leader. Dr. Frist represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate for 12 years where he served on both the Health and Finance committees responsible for writing health legislation. Dr. Frist was the former Co-Chair of ONE Vote ’08 and his leadership was instrumental in the passage of PEPFAR.

Click here to watch our Mother & Child Project video.
The Mother and Child Project:
Helping Families in the Developing World
Keynote Speaker: Former US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD
Host: Senior Pastor Mike Glenn
This faith-based conference will host dynamic speakers talking about the critical global health issues of maternal and child health, with a special emphasis on the benefits of healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies as a life-saving mechanism in the developing world. Local and national speakers will come together to talk about their special work as service providers in countries around the world, caring for mothers and children worldwide. We will lead a robust Q&A session with all the speakers encouraging further discussion. And the conference will close with practical, simple steps for how YOU can save lies and help families thrive in the developing world. 
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
8:30-2:30 pm, Brentwood Baptist Church
7777 Concord Road, Brentwood, TN 37027
Breakfast and Lunch included
Speakers
Gary Darmstadt, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Tom Walsh, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
James Nardella, Lwala Community Alliance
Dr. David Vanderpool, Live Beyond
Lisa Bos, World Vision
Rick Carter & Terry Laura, Compassion International
Lucas Koach, Food for the Hungry
Jenny Eaton Dyer, PhD, Hope Through Healing Hands
John Thomas, Living Hope
Questions?
JCrain@HopeThroughHealingHands.org
This conference is free and open to the public. Advance Registration is requested by Thursday, September 18.

Read my earlier Ebola primer and a look at what we know about how the virus behaves.

As the Ebola situation in West Africa progresses, we are dealing with increasingly complex medical and cultural challenges. I addressed some of the cultural issues in a Morning Consult column last month, and highlighted the importance of identifying infected patients:

The only solution is prevention, which relies on containment and isolation. The sick must be rapidly identified and contained. Their contacts must be followed for 21 days so they can be rapidly isolated, should they develop symptoms. Their care must be delivered in a hazmat suit. If the patient dies, and [50%] do, the body must be properly disposed of because a recently deceased Ebola victim is actively shedding the virus from his skin.

But thus far, identification has not been straightforward. In its earliest stages, Ebola looks like other diseases: malaria, typhoid fever, cholera. It’s clear that these patients are sick, but it’s not clear that they are infected with Ebola virus. During the incubation period, the infected individual may not show any symptoms at all.

Currently, public health workers try to work backwards from a very sick patient. Who lives with them? Who is in their community? Where have they traveled? Who may they have had contact with over the past month? Find those individuals. Follow their health for the next month. If anyone gets sick, the process starts over.

An early, precise diagnosis would be a game changer for this process.

  1. We could separate infected from uninfected patients immediately—before they are contagious. Even in locations without sophisticated quarantine facilities, physical separation of Ebola patients from others would cut down on cross contamination within clinics and communities, and better protect one of the hardest hit groups: health workers.
  2. We could dramatically decrease the virus’s geographic spread. Incubation takes 2 to 10 days, and usually that means the person is positive but not yet symptomatic. We believe that a patient isn’t contagious until the fever starts, but a rapid diagnostic test could identify a carrier before symptoms appear, and before they travel and risk spreading the virus.
  3. We could focus on post-exposure drug development. Identifying carriers before they feel ill would let us treat them early. Some drugs have already shown great efficacy if they are given immediately. Zmab is a drug designed as a prophylactic. It’s shown to be 100% effective in primates if given within 24 hrs of exposure and 50% in 48 hours. Other similar treatments could be extremely effective if we know who to give them to.
  4. Health care workers that have been exposed to Ebola can be quarantined for up to 21 days, and often they have not been infected. In an area with a severe shortage of trained medical personnel, the loss of any workers is disastrous. An early diagnostic test would let those medical professionals continue to safely treat their patients if they have not been infected.

The situation in West Africa is complex for so many reasons, and a rapid diagnostic test would not be an ultimate solution, but it could be the tipping point we need to stem the tide of new cases.

Sep 08 2014 - Sep 09 2014

Ebola's Hard Lessons

As September opened, a striking consensus had emerged among global health leaders that the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea has transmuted into a colossus that continues to gather force:  It is "spiraling out of control" (Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC); “We understand the outbreak is moving beyond our grasp” (Dr. David Nabarro, Senior UN System Coordinator for Ebola Disease ); Ebola is “a global threat” that “ will get worse before it gets better, and it requires a well-coordinated big surge of outbreak response” (World Health Organization Director General Dr. Margaret Chan); “Six months into the worst epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it. Leaders are failing to come to grips with the transnational threat” (Dr. Joanne Liu, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) International President).

 Ebola in West Africa has overwhelmed the containment and treatment measures attempted thus far, and is seriously threatening nearby and neighboring states. (A separate Ebola outbreak is underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.) Research and development of treatments and vaccines has accelerated, but the speed with which the Ebola virus is mutating has complicated the quest to identify new tools quickly. No tested or approved therapies exist. Vaccine testing has begun, but it is uncertain when or if a viable vaccine will become available. In the future, any viable vaccine will become effective only if people are immunized on a mass scale.

 Up until now, high-level global statesmanship has been absent, and the modest, late steps taken to control the outbreak have failed to stop its alarming, exponential growth.  As Ebola in West Africa charges ahead, it may finally stir world leaders to initiate the large-scale international security actions and other measures – quick disbursement of funds, mobilization of thousands of health workers, arrival of medical products and protective equipment – essential to arrest this catastrophe. If not, we should prepare for the worst: a runaway Ebola epidemic of an ever more massive scale in Africa.

 As of August 28, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated 3,069 cases with 1,552 deaths, over 40% emerging in the previous three weeks. By middle of this week, those numbers climbed to over 3,500 and 1,900, respectively. Over 240 health workers have become sick with Ebola, half of whom have died. This stark, upward, exponential trajectory is set to continue. WHO now freely admits that official numbers “vastly underestimate” reality and that the actual figures may be two to four times these levels. Total cases may soon reach 20,000, but there is no reason to believe it will stop at that level. Accordingly, in its new action plan, WHO called initially for international commitments of $489 million, almost five times the $100 million it proposed in late July. By this week, Dr. Nabarro claimed the requirements have reached $600 million but “could be a lot more.”

 A tragedy for West Africa, the Ebola crisis has been a humiliating

Read the rest of this story at Smart Global Health.

Last November, at an event associated with the International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I was struck by a public comment from a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID): “With almost 90% of people globally professing a faith, it doesn’t make sense to do family planning without the faith community.”

I was bowled over by this statement. I checked up on the claim, and found that, according to the Pew Research Center, 84% of the 2010 world population of 6.9 billion is considered “religiously affiliated.”

So the point was valid, and I would go even further: We in global development should be partnering more with the faith community in allareas of global health. After all, if the faith community can work on family planning – fraught with all of its social, cultural and religious baggage – it should also be able to work effectively on less controversial issues like malaria, diarrhea, water and sanitation. Especially in places like Africa where people have a high level of confidence in their religious institutions.

Ray Martin, who is stepping down as executive director of Christian Connections for International Health (CCIH) August 31 after 14 years on the job, knows as much as anyone about this issue (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of CCIH).

“While it is gratifying to me over a five-decade career in global health to observe...

Read the rest of this article at GlobalHealthTv.com

The Mother and Child Project:
Helping Families in the Developing World
Keynote Speaker: Former US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD
Host: Senior Pastor Mike Glenn
This faith-based conference will host dynamic speakers talking about the critical global health issues of maternal and child health, with a special emphasis on the benefits of healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies as a life-saving mechanism in the developing world. Local and national speakers will come together to talk about their special work as service providers in countries around the world, caring for mothers and children worldwide. We will lead a robust Q&A session with all the speakers encouraging further discussion. And the conference will close with practical, simple steps for how YOU can save lies and help families thrive in the developing world. 
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
8:30-2:30 pm, Brentwood Baptist Church
7777 Concord Road, Brentwood, TN 37027
Breakfast and Lunch included
Speakers
Gary Darmstadt, MD,  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Tom Walsh,  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
James Nardella, Lwala Community Alliance
David Vanderpool, MD, Live Beyond
Lisa Bos, World Vision
Rick Carter & Terry Laura, Compassion International
Lucas Koach, Food for the Hungry
Jenny Eaton Dyer, PhD, Hope Through Healing Hands
John Thomas, Living Hope
Questions?
JCrain@HopeThroughHealingHands.org
This conference is free and open to the public. Advance Registration is requested by Thursday, September 18.

One of the best things about healthcare delivery in Guyana is that it is nationalized.  Care is free and available to every citizen.  It is financed and managed through the Ministry of Health working together with regional and local government. There is an independent private sector.   However, despite a national health system, there are several gaps in the delivery of health care in Guyana.

Chronic diseases, such are hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, are becoming more prevalent in Guyana and currently there is not an infrastructure in place to help manage this growing problem.  Patients are presenting to the emergency department at advanced stages at which time there may not be great treatment options available.    Unfortunately the regional health center, which would ideally be the place for primary care, is not very equipped. There is usually just one physician available to staff a large local population and he/she may not be well trained to manage chronic disease.  The availability of equipment such as blood pressure cuffs, glucometers, monofilaments, debridement tools for diabetic ulcers are often in limited supply. Lab testing and monitoring are usually not available.  The idea of routine screening and preventative medicine is nonexistent.  Ancillary staff, if available, is also not well trained. 

While most patients living along the coast have access to some sort of health care, whether through regional health centers or the local emergency department, those who live in the interior have little to no access.  This is largely because of the sparse population and difficult terrain. The population comprises mostly of indigenous people and miners - in emergency situations, they travel for days to the capital to receive care.

In Guyana, there is very little support for persons with mental health disorders or substance abuse.  During my short time in Guyana, there were more than a handful of persons presenting with suicide attempt, often with paraquat, a freely available but deadly herbicide.  At a public health level, there needs to be better regulation of who has access to these poisons as this is an easily preventable cause of morbidity and mortality.   There is poor education about mental illness among the population as well as among providers.  If a patient survives a suicide attempt, he/she is discharged from the hospital without any resources or treatment to address with underlying mental illness.  Substance abuse, specifically alcohol, is never addressed.  Training providers as well as the development of a psychiatric unit or treatment center will be a small step to help address this growing problem. 

One of the largest challenges to health care delivery in Guyana is the lack of an integrated health information system.  Medical records are completely on paper and patients’ charts do not go with them throughout their contact with the medical field.  The medical record is not used to support decision making.  For example, if a patient presents to the ED with hypertensive emergency, a new chart is made up for the admission.  Even though the same patient presented a week prior with the same issue, the record is not automatically included and there is no way to use information about their previous treatment to guide treatment decisions now.  In addition, the contents that make up the medical record are sometimes sporadic and often incomplete.

There are many areas that need to be built up for the health care system in Guyana to become what it needs to be.  There needs to be programs in place for advance training of physicians and compensation and work plans that keep these well trained physicians interested in staying in Guyana. Local health centers need to become the first line for screening and management of chronic diseases.  Also, within the public health sector education programs need to be developed that teaches local population about disease, mental illness and a healthy lifestyle.

In Guyana, there appears to be a commitment by the government to improve the overall healthcare delivery system.  With the monetary support and partnership with many foreign agencies, Guyana is slowly on its way to delivering the care its people need.

 

All I can say is, I don’t know how they do it. I have finished my time in A&E and have been on female medical ward for the last week and a half. The female medical ward is housed in a new facility that opened several months ago. There are approximately 8 patients per room.  Patients have to bring their own sheets, clothes, toilet paper, water, and any other supplies that they might need.   There are many nurses and even more nursing students around, but I have yet to figure out exactly what they do.  Care by the nursing staff is haphazard at best.

It is so busy here!  There are two interns who take care of 60-80 patients at any given time and every 3rd day they do a 36 hour shift.  Rounds every morning are quite exhausting and interminable.  We either help the interns pre-round (this may involve checking vitals, starting IVs, updating orders) or we round with the sole internal medicine consultant (in the country!) during bedside teaching rounds.   There are about 20 medical students who attend these rounds and it is the only semi-structured teaching they receive during their internal medicine rotation. I spent some time going over a few cases with them and though they are eager and enthusiastic to learn medicine I worry about how they will develop the skill sets needed to identify and manage disease processes.

Unfortunately, because the wards are so busy and it is often only the interns around to manage patients, many things are missed or overlooked.  Labs take a long time to return and once they do show up may be forgotten until the next day on rounds.  A patient’s clinical status may deteriorate without anyone recognizing or alerting a physician of the change for hours.   There is a lot of death and, unfortunately, sometimes it seems all but inevitable. 

Despite all the obstacles present, the best part about being here is the patients I get to work with.  There is such a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the care that they receive and readily acceptance and trust even when things do not go quite right.  There is such strength and resilience in the human spirit.

Yesterday was the last day of the rotation and I spent part of the day in medical records going over a couple charts of patients that I had heard about or taken care of.   As I sat on the hard wooden bench, in the cloying sticky heat waiting for them to pull the records, I looked around and saw the tall shelves of recorded births and deaths at GPHC for the last 50 years.  It was particularly striking to me at that moment that somewhere amidst all of that paper, the record of my birth could be found.  Looking at GPHC currently, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like so many years ago.  Nonetheless, I feel like I have come full circle and I never could have predicted it.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be here and I look forward to creating opportunities to come back to teach, work and help build up the healthcare of Guyana.

As the CDC treats the nation’s first two Ebola cases there are a lot of questions and concerns about the disease in America—Could it become an epidemic here? How contagious is it? How is it caught?

Although my medical specialty is cardiothoracic surgery, I have spent a good deal of time working on global health issues in Africa and elsewhere, and I have been in close contact with the CDC over the past week. I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the features of Ebola that make it more—and less—dangerous.

As a viral disease, Ebola follows a fairly predictable timeline.

Incubation: the time between when a person is exposed to the virus, and when symptoms start. In Ebola, that incubation period can be between 2 and about 21 days. During that time, the patient does not feel sick and research suggests that they are not contagious. (see doi:  10.1016/j.phrp.2011.04.001) There’s been concern about infected travelers spreading Ebola to other parts of the world after traveling from West Africa. That is certainly possible with a long incubation period.

Onset of Symptoms: However, once an infected person starts to feel sick, they are quickly seriously ill. There is sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function.

Unlike a cold, when you could be spreading the virus and not really feel that unwell, Ebola patients know that they are sick. This is actually a good thing, because sick patients are easy to identify, isolate, and treat. Other diseases still need to be ruled out—malaria, typhoid fever, cholera—but it’s clear that the patient has a severe illness.

Transmission: Here is perhaps the scariest part. How do you get it? How did Dr. Brantly get it? How is the virus spreading between people?

Some diseases are infectious, but not contagious. Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever are transmitted from ticks to humans but cannot be spread from human to human.

Contagious diseases can be spread from person to person, but not all equally well. Chicken pox, small pox, and measles, for example, are airborne spread—meaning the virus spreads very well with each exhale. These diseases are highly contagious.

Ebola, on the other hand, is only spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients—blood, semen, sweat, urine and other secretions. And then, that fluid needs an easy entry into the body: a shared needle, an open cut, an exposed mucous membrane. It could possibly be spread through a cough or a sneeze, but that would require a fairly large drop of mucous to be coughed into another person’s face and get into their mouth or nose or eye.

For healthcare workers in West Africa, this could be possible. With limited supplies, perhaps there is a tear in a glove, or there aren’t enough goggles to go around, or bedding is reused because there isn’t an adequate way to clean it.

If patients are being cared for at home—either because they are too far away from a medical facility, or there’s some cultural distrust of foreign aid workers—caregivers in close physical contact with sick loved ones would have no medical or cleaning supplies. There are also vast cultural issues that influence the virus’ spread, and I’ll touch on those soon.

But with supplies, knowledge, and fully-equipped medical centers, these circumstances would be much less likely to happen. For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is not concerned about an outbreak in the United States.

The situation is certainly serious—and will continue to be very serious in West Africa. But although we don’t know everything about how this virus behaves and changes, we do have quite a bit of useful knowledge about how to keep it contained, and how to keep our healthcare workers at home and abroad safe.