Tucson, Ariz. In Oct 16 hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, no one asked why the deadly Ebola virus is no longer being treated as a “level 4” threat.
Scientists who work with Ebola do it only in BSL-4 (biosafety level-4) laboratories, in which they are protected against breathing potentially contaminated air and have complete skin surface protection by means of an encapsulating “space suit.” Entry into a BSL-4 facility is only through an air lock. Before leaving a BSL-4 facility, the outside of the “space suit” is sprayed with a mist of decontamination solution for several minutes. All equipment that enters the BSL-4 area is sterilized with paraformaldehyde gas before it is removed. All other materials are bagged and immediately incinerated on site.
One researcher who had an accidental needlestick was immediately isolated in a BSL-4 medical facility called “the Slammer,” suitable for intensive care by practiced physicians and nurses from Walter Reed, wearing encapsulating suits. BSL-4 isolation is for 21 days as described by David Quammen in his book Spillover.
Hundreds of workers in Africa, and now two in the U.S., have caught the disease when using lower levels of protection. Yet the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) asserts that every hospital in the U.S. can be adequately prepared, and told a nurse who had been exposed that it was fine to take a commercial flight.
Some congressmen complained that the CDC did not have enough money. But none mentioned that the special military unit for transporting patients under BSL-4 level conditions, the Aeromedical Isolation and Special Medical Augmentation Response Team (AIT-SMART), which was created in 1978, was dismantled in 2010.
“Having seriously downgraded our response capability, U.S. government agencies are now pretending that the actual threat level is less,” stated Physicians for Civil Defense president Jane Orient, M.D. “Both our military and civilian population are at grave risk.”
Sending in a rapid response team from Atlanta is not a substitute for respirators, negative-pressure isolation rooms, and proper decontamination procedures, she noted. Neither are “tear sheets” instructing air travelers from epidemic areas to check their temperature.
“Official denial of the seriousness of the threat is reckless and irresponsible,” she stated. The disease is now killing 70 percent of its victims in Africa.