Ebola Fears Follow American Doctor Home from Liberia

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Relatives of Hanfen John who died due to the Ebola virus, mourn for him in Monrovia, Liberia on 10 October, 2014.
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Despite aggressive precautions, a Dallas healthcare worker has become the first American to contract the Ebola virus within the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the newly-infected nurse had extensive interactions with Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Duncan, who died of the disease on Wednesday. It is believed that the disease spread because the rules of quarantine and isolation were not closely followed—something Dr. Adam C. Levine has been warning the world about for weeks.

Dr. Levine has been chronicling his experience fighting Ebola in West Africa for The Takeaway over the last several weeks. In his many audio diaries, Dr. Levine has been trying to convey, above all else, the raw bravery it takes to treat people with Ebola.

“There’s just so much stigma associated with the disease,” he said in a recent Takeaway audio diary. “The fact that these healthcare workers, many of whom have colleagues who have fallen ill or died from the disease, are still here working is really impressive.”

After more than a month working in an Ebola treatment unit in Bong County, Liberia, Dr. Levine, an emergency medical physician at the Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brown University, has come home to the United States. Though he’s back home, he still has a few more days until he'll know if he’s officially cleared of the virus by CDC standards.

Dr. Levine says that he's not too worried, but he is frustrated with the Ebola hysteria in the United States. He says that eradicating Ebola worldwide starts with increasing the focus in the worst hit areas of West Africa.

“From a humanitarian perspective, all of our focus really needs to be on West Africa—that’s where thousands of people are dying right now from Ebola,” Dr. Levine says. “In fact, even for our own personal protection here in America, the best way to stop cases in the future from coming to the U.S. is to eradicate this epidemic right now in West Africa.”

Dr. Levine says that aggressively focusing resources on the fight against Ebola in West Africa can not only end the epidemic, but eradicate the disease entirely. Since the latest outbreak began in March 2014, the virus has killed more than 4,000 people in seven countries.

While in Liberia, Dr. Levine got to work closely with many local nurses, physician assistants, hygienists, and burial team members—individuals that are still grappling with the daily struggle to fight the virus.

“Our local staff working in the Ebola treatment unit often framed it as their fight, their war against Ebola,” he says. “All of them saw themselves, in many ways, as the soldiers on the frontlines of that battle.”

Ebola has killed more than 2,000 people in Liberia alone. International Medical Corps, the organization Dr. Levine was working with in Liberia, takes several steps to ensure the safety of both healthcare workers on the ground and patients fighting the disease.

But, Dr. Levine says, the risk of the virus is always there, no matter how many precautions are taken.

“You can minimize the risk, but you can never minimize it to zero,” he says. “It is a risk that you do take, and it can be scary at times. Even after returning back here to the United States, there are still 21 days of fear where I’m monitoring my temperature—there are 45 seconds of panic every time I put the thermometer in my mouth before it beeps and tells me that I don’t have a fever.”

Unlike other diseases, Dr. Levine says that the Ebola virus presents a large risk to the medical community.

“This is a disease that really does almost preferentially target healthcare workers,” he says. “As a healthcare worker, we usually have this divide between us and our patients—they’re the ones that are sick and we’re the ones that are healthy; we’re the ones that are strong and we’re the ones that are taking care of them. For so many healthcare workers to be getting infected and to be getting this disease is very unusual compared to most other conditions.”

The Ebola virus has wreaked havoc on many of the weak healthcare systems of West Africa, Dr. Levine says.

“When you have a healthcare system where there are already very few doctors and very few nurses and just a few of them fall ill, it can cause the entire healthcare system to become paralyzed and collapse,” he says.

Like the healthcare workers in Liberia, at home in the United States Dr. Levine is feeling the stigma of Ebola, adding that he feels like he’s “half hero, half pariah.”

“It’s this strange dichotomy, especially during this 21-day [monitoring] period,” he says. “There are some folks not wanting to see me or be around me, while at the same time I’m getting more media requests that I can possibly respond to.”

While Dr. Levine waits out the next 21 days, he is also waiting out the psychological effects of the Ebola virus.

“This is a disease that generates a lot of fear,” he says. “I’ve called it an epidemic of fear because, in many ways, that’s what it is.”