A case or two may land in London but an outbreak of Ebola on this side of the Atlantic is almost laughably unlikely.
That’s according to Dr. Chris Mackie, the medical officer of health and CEO at the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU).
News broke this week of the first case of Ebola landing in the United States in the form of a child who had visited Liberia and returned to Texas with a fever.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are at least 6,500 cases of Ebola in West Africa, spread almost exclusively through human-to-human contact. At least 3,000 people have died.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two cases were imported (to Ontario),” Mackie explained. “I would be surprised to see any sort of significant outbreak in Canada.”
He said it’s a “crushing burden” to the West African countries saddled with struggling health care systems and stumbling economies but Canada and Ontario especially are “hyper aware” of the risk of respiratory diseases after the SARS outbreak of 2003.
“The key thing is that cultural practices are essentially behind the epidemic,” he said. “They show respect to the dead by touching and hugging the body, which we don’t have here. The virus is unlikely to spread unless the patient is very, very ill and again here if you are that sick, you are separated immediately.”
He said the health unit is constantly in contact with family doctors, emergency rooms and other health care providers with the latest evidence.
“There are a lot of people watching very closely.”
One of them is Mackie’s federal counterpart, Canada’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Greg Taylor.
“Canada is well prepared with a number of systems in place to identify and prevent the spread of serious infectious diseases like Ebola, such as working closely with our international partners to gather and assess information and administering the Quarantine Act at all points of entry into Canada,” he said in a statement.
London is well equipped too, according to Dr. Michael Silverman, co-medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC).
He said the hospital has the equipment, staff and space to contain a potential Ebola patient, which most health care providers in West Africa simply don’t.
People are less trustful of the health care system there, which is relatively understaffed and short on resources. That leads to more staying home for fear of catching something else, and ultimately continuing to spread the virus in their community.
“The big thing is education to get people to trust the system because in the absence of it there will be ongoing transmission,” he said. “That would be the worst-case scenario.”
Silverman qualified that with the fact that unless the epidemic continues for several more weeks, statistically a patient from that region who presents with fever-like symptoms is still more likely to have typhoid, dengue or malaria, all more treatable than Ebola.
“Epidemics are easy to stop when they’re very early on,” he explained. “But if delays occur, (with officials saying) 'let’s save money and not deploy the resources yet,’ it’s sort of like not paying your credit card. It becomes a bigger and bigger problem.”