A year after an Ebola outbreak gripped the nation, U.S. epidemic experts said Tuesday that heightened vigilance — and more money — are needed to be ready for the next attack, an attack that is likely to come from an unexpected front.
“There will be another infectious diseases outbreak and it’s probably going to be with an agent that I don’t have on my slide,” said Dr. Bruce Ribner, medical director of the Emory University Hospital Serious Communicable Diseases Unit.
Dr. Ribner was speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing Tuesday sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which looked at what the nation has learned over the past year and what strategies will work best for the future.
In August 2014, Dr. Ribner witnessed the hospitalization of two Ebola patients, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, at Emory hospital, as well as the recovery and release of his patients after he deemed them no longer infectious.
As the disease appeared to rage unchecked in Africa, Ebola hit home here as Americans read anxiously about the first Ebola victim to die in the U.S., Thomas Duncan, in Dallas, Texas, followed by two more confirmed cases, two nurses who had cared for Duncan. The next Ebola case was confirmed in New York City, a doctor who had returned from Guinea.
In response, the nation ramped up prevention procedures as New York and New Jersey increased airport screening for flights coming from West Africa, quarantining everyone who had contact with Ebola patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased training, awareness and protective clothing for health care workers, and President Obama requested roughly $6 billion from Congress to staunch the outbreak.
A year later, the threat finally appears to be receding. Last week marked the first week since December 2013 that no new Ebola cases were announced, Dr. Ribner reported.
But Dr. Ribner warned that declaring victory would be premature.
“Americans in the United States have a very short attention span,” he said, noting that after the initial frenzy about Ebola died down, people returned to their normal lives and forgot about preparation in the event of another outbreak.
Some of the patients who contracted the disease haven’t been able to move on so quickly. Ms. Writebol, infected while working at a charity hospital in Liberia, recently told NBC News she endured months of severe joint pain after her attack.
Pauline Cafferkey, a British nurse, returned to the hospital just this month in serious condition with complications from her bout with Ebola in January.
Public health experts also have said the response of U.S. hospitals and the government in the confusing weeks after the first cases were diagnosed have exposed communication and coordination problems that still haven’t been fully addressed.
Dr. Ribner, who said his own budget was cut by two-thirds, stressed the necessity of funding for maintaining preparations for the unexpected in situations like the Ebola outbreak, where Emory was equipped with isolation units for safely treating patients without exposing others to the disease.
“One of the first things we learned is that we could care for patients with Ebola disease without any of our health care workers contracting the disease,” said Dr. Ribner.
Dr. James DeLuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, agreed that funding was vital for handling another epidemic.
“The problem is sustainability. We’ve got to make sure there’s a constant pipeline of funding these things,” Dr. DeLuc said. “The sustainability, the predictability of a funding stream are absolutely essential.”
No matter where a virus breaks out, the U.S. needs to be prepared, Dr. DeLuc emphasized.
“The pathogens we’re talking about don’t hold passports,” he warned.