Since Ebola was first discovered in 1976, there have been an estimated 16 to 22 recorded outbreaks. In August, the World Health Organization designated the most recent outbreak a global emergency.
Ebola is a deadly infection and the scope of the current epidemic in West Africa is unprecedented. More than 17,000 people have contracted Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) with more than 6,000 estimated deaths.
Many in the health care field have criticized the response of world leaders and health officials. Yet so far, the risk of contracting the disease in the U.S. appears minimal. Only 10 cases and 2 deaths have been reported in this country. That fact hasn’t tempered fears much. In November, nearly half the participants in an online poll considered Ebola a “moderate” or “major”public health threat to Americans.
Ebola is a terrible disease and we need to do everything we can to protect people from it. But as a doctor and CEO, I can’t help but notice a double standard relative to the Ebola response. U.S. health officials have spared no expense and health care workers have, appropriately, insisted no preventive measure is too extreme. Meanwhile, another infectious disease has been killing thousands of Americans each year with very little media fanfare or public outcry.
The Ebola Double Standard
Caring for patients with Ebola is complex. It requires extensive training and elaborate equipment. The CDC is now travelling the country and has confirmed that 35 destination hospitals in the U.S. are doing everything possible to protect health care workers and patients alike.
But that same level of caution and concern does not exist when it comes to preventing the spread of C. diff and other hospital-acquired infections. In fact, CDC figures from 2011 reported 722,000 U.S. hospital-acquired infections that year, resulting in approximately 75,000 unnecessary deaths.
Given these staggering statistics, how is it possible for caregivers not to wash their hands when they go in and out of a patient’s room? Excuses abound. Health care workers tell themselves it is not essential to wash if a patient seems healthy. They may rationalize that it’s too much trouble or that they don’t have the time. But make no mistake, if improper hand hygiene put 14,000 caregivers at risk of dying, the culture and rules of health care would change rapidly.
Some of the same leaders who demand hazmat suits to protect health care workers from Ebola have done little to address the risks involved when health care workers don’t wash their hands. Ending this double standard will save lives.
Of course, we need to do everything we can to protect the population at large from Ebola, especially those dedicated individuals caring for its victims. As TIME’s Nancy Gibbs writes, “Anyone willing to treat Ebola victims (runs) the risk of becoming one.” We owe a debt of gratitude to these Ebola Fighters who have risked their lives providing care to the African communities so severely impacted by this disease. Through their efforts, we are making real progress toward stopping the outbreak. After all, preventing the spread of Ebola in West Africa is the best way to protect people in the U.S.
But we as a health care community must also invest the same level of passion and concern to stop the spread of C. diff and other hospital-acquired infections. No health care worker wants to hurt patients, but it happens. And all too often, the health care double standard is to blame.