Thirty-eight University of New England health care students and eight faculty members who were scheduled to leave Monday for a clinic in Ghana are staying at home because of the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa and the resulting potential for unrest.
“We decided we would not be directly threatened by Ebola virus, but because of the context of uncertainty with this outbreak clearly not in control yet – and likely weeks if not months before it will be in control – we felt there would be enough uncertainty and potential unrest that it would be best if we waited,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, vice president for clinical affairs for the Biddeford-based school, which also operates a campus in Portland.
The Ebola outbreak has killed more than 700 people in West Africa and is sickening people in three African capitals for the first time in history.
“If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives, but also severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries,” Dr. Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization’s director-general, said at a meeting of West African leaders in Guinea. The WHO launched a $100 million response plan that includes deploying hundreds of health care workers.
Doctors Without Borders has deployed some 550 health workers, but says its teams are overwhelmed with new Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and that the situation in Liberia is now “dire.”
At least 729 people have died since cases first emerged in March: 339 in Guinea, 233 in Sierra Leone, 156 in Liberia and one in Nigeria. The fatality rate has been about 60 percent, and the scenes of patients bleeding from the eyes, mouth and ears has led many relatives to keep their sick family members at home instead.
More than 300 Peace Corps volunteers have been evacuated from West Africa as a precaution.
Two American health workers in Liberia have been infected, and an American man of Liberian descent died in Nigeria from the disease, health authorities there say.
Besides the UNE trip, other organizations have canceled or are monitoring the situation closely.
Partners for World Health, which collects medical supplies and organizes an annual medical mission to Senegal with 10 to 15 health care workers, canceled its trip in May after Ebola broke out in neighboring Guinea, founder Elizabeth McLellan said.
“The people who are going to be most exposed are the health care workers, because when (Ebola patients) get sick, they’re going to the hospital,” she said, noting there also are security concerns. “When you have to force people into quarantine, people get angry about that.”
Ann Lee Hussey, who has traveled to West Africa several times as part of Rotary International’s effort to eradicate polio, is planning a trip to Nigeria in November. She is monitoring the situation to see whether she should go. Another Rotary group is still planning to visit the country in September.
There are no reports of Ebola in Ghana, where the UNE students were headed, but the American doctor who died in Nigeria changed planes in Ghana at the same airport where the students would be arriving, Mills said.
The UNE immersion program’s organizers started getting worried inquiries from parents and students last week. Mills, the former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, consulted with former colleagues in government and private health organizations and decided Thursday to call it off.
“The litmus test for me, trying to figure out what to do, is ‘What would you do if it were your own child?'” Mills said. “The answer to me yesterday by midday was ‘I would not send my child on this trip.”
Students were very disappointed by the news – they’d been planning the trip for six months – but also understanding, said Jen Morton, director of UNE’s nursing school, who started the clinical immersion program 15 years ago. As aspiring health care professionals, they have been monitoring the news closely.
She called each student Friday morning to inform them.
The program is run twice a year, and most may try to go in May or if the current trip is rescheduled. Some, however, will graduate without getting the chance.
The students were scheduled to go to go for two weeks working alongside Ghanaian health care workers. The students and faculty represented a cross-section of disciplines, with students studying pharmacy, physical therapy, nursing and public health.
Mills was planning to join the trip as a physician and public health professional, her first time accompanying them. When she was a medical student at the University of Vermont in the late 1980s she traveled to Ivory Coast in West Africa and later took trips to Tanzania.
“Border control, transportation, health care, political systems, communications, even utilities – in West Africa, these systems are very much in the development stage,” she said. “When there are tremendous uncertainties, say due to an outbreak, many of those systems can deteriorate and then cause a lack of access to transportation or communication, basic utilities and safety.”
Another concern that led to the decision to cancel, Mills said, is that anyone with a fever is not allowed to leave the airport in Ghana’s capital until he or she is determined to be Ebola free. Anyone in the group with a fever – which is very likely given the conditions and the number of sick people they would be exposed to – would be quarantined and have to stay behind for a time.
New protocols established by the federal Centers for Disease Control to prevent the spread of the virus, which has an incubation period of up to 21 days, say that anyone who experiences a fever within three weeks of returning from West Africa should seek medical attention then be isolated for two to four days until they are diagnosed. The students are in clinical training so on their return, many would be working in hospitals, having contact with many more people, Mills said.
Also of concern, Morton said, was that the students would be perceived as health care professionals by a public that could become very frightened if the virus continues to spread.
“Just because there are 40 people who know something about health care, they don’t know anything about health care in Africa,” she said. Also, the work they were going to perform was not critical, life-saving intervention.
The school canceled one other trip to Ghana in 2004 because of State Department concerns about political unrest.
The students had raised money for the trip but had trip insurance, said Mills. The cost of the tickets was refunded and the money the students had contributed to program expenses is being returned.
The likelihood of a similar Ebola outbreak in the United States, even if the virus makes it here, is slim, said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control. U.S. health care systems are better able to isolate sick people to keep a disease from spreading. But she said it is important everyone follow the recommended precautions.
“It’s only an airplane flight away, basically,” she said. “Right now the most important thing is containment.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.