The news that two staff members of the Windsor Senior Living community in Dallas, Texas have been quarantined and are being monitored for signs of Ebola has sent ripples of fear through the elder care community.
The employees in question are said to have been in contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who was the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Duncan died from the disease in early October 2014. Since his death, two of the nurses who took care of him at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital have also contracted the illness.
In a letter to residents and employees, Windsor Senior Living explains the situation and urges people not to panic, saying:
“Dallas County Health and Human Services has told us that community residents, staff members and guests are at no risk for Ebola from these quarantined staff members. It is important that you know that the staff members—who are valued members of our team—have not shown any symptoms of the virus. However, protocol designed by the CDC, and underscored by local authorities, requires quarantine in their homes for a total of 21 days.”
The prospect of Ebola spreading in assisted living communities and nursing homes is frightening. Older adults with weakened immune systems, already being taxed by other ailments, and living in close quarters where they could easily come in contact with each other's bodily fluids seems like an ideal breeding ground for the highly-dangerous disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also note that “Healthcare providers caring for Ebola patients and the family and friends in close contact with Ebola patients are at the highest risk of getting sick because they may come in contact with infected blood or body fluids of sick patients. During outbreak of Ebola, the disease can spread quickly within healthcare settings.”
Why You Shouldn't Worry
There's no doubt that Ebola is a dangerous disease that warrants the proper precautions. But should families of older adults in senior living communities be worried?
Overall, Americans are very concerned about Ebola. A poll by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that more than half (52 percent) of adults believe that in 2014 and 2015, the United States will have a widespread Ebola outbreak.
Unfortunately, despite a massive amount of media coverage on the topic, there are a couple of major misconceptions about the transmission and lethality of Ebola that continue to persist.
How Ebola Is Spread
Ebola is not spread through air, water or food. According to the CDC, Ebola can only be spread via direct contact (broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, or mouth, in particular) with an infected individual's body fluids (e.g. vomit, blood, feces, urine, sweat, semen, breast milk, saliva, etc.), needles, syringes, bedding and clothing that have been contaminated with Ebola,, or infected animals (mammals only). Also, people with Ebola are only contagious while exhibiting symptoms. So, while you could potentially contract Ebola from a sneeze—if an ill person's mucus and/or saliva entered your body through a cut or mucous membrane—it's highly unlikely.
Ebola Isn't a Death Sentence
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the average mortality rate of Ebola patients is about 50 percent. Part of the reason the virus is so deadly in West African countries is because they lack the strong health care infrastructure necessary to neutralize the threat. The 2014 Ebola outbreak is the most deadly in recorded history, which is part of the reason it has attracted so much attention. Current treatment for Ebola mainly involves rehydration and symptom management, though other therapies that employ pharmaceuticals, and blood and immune products are also being tested.
Ultimately, any time an aging family member is receiving care in an institutional setting—whether it be a hospital, an assisted living facility or a nursing home—there's always the chance that they will catch something from a fellow patient.
While the threat of Ebola adds a new ailment to the list of potential diseases, simple hygiene practices such as proper hand washing and sanitizing durable medical equipment and surfaces in common areas can go a long way towards preventing the spread of not just Ebola, but the much more common (and almost equally dangerous) influenza virus. Indeed, ninety percent of people who die from the flu each year are 65 and older.
For information on how to boost an older adult's immune system, read: Recommended Vaccines for the Elderly.