Bioethics Blogs

Spanish Ebola case highlights risks to healthcare workers

A nurse who cared for an Ebola patient repatriated to a Madrid hospital has contracted the disease, the Spanish health ministry announced on 6 October. The news is unfortunately not surprising, however.

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US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease

Although Ebola is relatively difficult to catch in the community because infection requires contact with the bodily fluids — such as blood or vomit — of an infected person, close contacts and health-care workers treating Ebola patients have long been recognised as groups most at risk of contracting the virus.

Health-care workers have already paid a heavy price in the current epidemic in west Africa: as of 1 October, the World Health Organization estimates that 382 have contracted Ebola, and 216 of them have died.

Spanish authorities will investigate how the nurse at the Carlos III hospital came to be infected, and whether there were any shortcomings in infection control — such as in the personal protective equipment supplied, training in its use, or in hospital hygiene. As someone who recently treated an Ebola patient, the nurse would have been considered a contact at risk of exposure to the virus, and have been monitored for any symptoms such as fever, that could signal the onset of Ebola. Such surveillance of contacts is critical to preventing any onward spread of virus.

It’s important to remember that people with Ebola don’t become infectious until they start showing symptoms, so monitoring of contacts of an Ebola-infected patient for fever is usually considered sufficient, with them being isolated only at the first hint of illness — although some authorities may choose to quarantine high-risk contacts.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.