Unlike the upheavals in the 1995 movie Outbreak and the 2011 film Contagion, the current hysteria and panic over the spread of Ebola virus are not taking place on some sound stage or movie set. The characters are not Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, or Gwyneth Paltrow. The outbreak of Ebola currently playing out on the world’s stage is not dramatic fiction but a real event, involving a known deadly virus with actual doctors and thousands of patients cast in one of the most widespread epidemics in modern times.
According to The Pharmaceutical Journal, a publication of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, “Since it began in Guinea in December 2013, [Ebola] has spread to Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone,” and, according to ABC News, “has sickened 8,399 since March, killing 4,033 of them.” Contrary to what occurs in those disaster movies, despite Ebola’s proliferation, there is no evidence the virus is mutating or spiraling out of control. And while it is extremely infectious, it is only considered moderately contagious. It does not spread as easily as an airborne virus like the flu, as Hollywood would have you believe, but requires bodily contact—the kind of contact caregivers and healthcare professionals often give to sick patients, such as wiping saliva from lips or analyzing an infected person’s blood and urine.
Although Ebola has unfortunately become a household word these days, discovery of the disease actually dates back nearly 40 years. According to a CNN report, the first human outbreaks occurred in 1976, one in northern Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the other in southern Sudan (now South Sudan). According to the CDC, the virus is named after the Ebola River, as the virus was first encountered in a village nearby. Symptoms generally include weakness, fever, aches, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Additional indicators include rash, red eyes, chest pain, throat soreness, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and bleeding (including internal).
Healthcare personnel and caregivers who make contact with a person exposed to or infected by the Ebola virus are in the greatest danger of contracting the disease, especially if their protective gear is not fitted or removed properly. Other healthcare providers and individuals who come into contact with patients on a regular basis, such as pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, should take proper precautions with any patient presenting Ebola symptoms.
It should be noted that the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) is reporting, “Community pharmacy professionals are among the Ebola fatalities of health care workers in Sierra Leone.” A pharmacist source told the FIP that “one pharmacist and four pharmacy technicians have died, all five from the community pharmacy sector.” The FIP said that pharmacies in Liberia have been inundated with people who want to buy medications, and many are reluctant to go to hospitals or clinics. Pharmacies in affected and neighboring countries have been preparing for the spread of the virus.
While it is not likely that this scenario will be repeated in the United States, far from the epicenter of the initial outbreak, pharmacists should be aware of Ebola symptoms and be cautious when consulting with patients who exhibit them. The CDC has published online the excellent Checklist for Patients Being Evaluated for Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in the United States. Additionally, next month U.S. Pharmacist will publish an excellent article on Ebola that every pharmacist should read. In the final analysis, education is a key component to preventing and containing this deadly epidemic.
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