Does our nation run the other way in the face of deadly threats? Hardly. The United States has shown no reluctance to confront terrorists anywhere in the world. But now that the threat is too small to see — the Ebola virus — many of us, gripped by fear, seem to want to head for the hills.
I say bring Ebola on. Developed nations like the United States should be treating as many Ebola patients as possible, not trying to exclude them and stigmatizing health workers who try to help. The best way to stop Ebola from spreading across the world is to contain it now by welcoming all infected patients here (or to other developed nations) where we are better able to provide excellent care and bring the outbreak under control. If we wait much longer, the disease may kill millions — including many more in the United States. We must control Ebola now.
At least one official at the U.S. State Department has called for governments to bring infected health workers back to developed nations for treatment. That is a good first step, but we should go much further.
At the time of this writing, the U.S. has a 20 percent mortality rate in the treatment of Ebola patients. Sadly, Africa's mortality rate appears to be about 70 percent. Many patients are not even being treated because of a lack of health workers and facilities.
Nurse staffing levels are probably the most important factor in the different mortality rates. Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is pressing specifically for more nurses. It reports that the nurse-to-patient ratio in African Ebola tents is 1 to 15, sometimes 1 to 20. Ebola patients in the U.S. appear to have had the benefit of at least a 1 to 1 ratio.
That is a drastic and life-saving difference. Quality nursing care saves lives, particularly the lives of patients with this kind of disease, which above all requires skilled nurses to deliver intensive care by constantly monitoring for signs of deterioration and reacting quickly with good judgment.
Funds for health care are scarce everywhere, but there's no question that we and the rest of the developed world are better prepared to confront this epidemic. Health workers in West Africa have good information on Ebola and care protocols, as well as a boatload of courage, but they still lack the infrastructure and sufficient nurses to stop the epidemic. In the U.S., we have a nurse-population ratio of about 1 to 100. In Africa, the ratio is about 1 to 1,000.
The number of nurses and other health workers in the developed world who can leave their jobs and travel thousands of miles to Africa to care for Ebola patients is limited. And some developed nations have been reluctant to send health workers to Africa to treat Ebola.
It is also true that too many in the United States have allowed fear of the disease to overcome reason, as reflected in the efforts to bully Maine nurse Kaci Hickox into an unnecessary quarantine and in the shunning of care givers at New York's Bellevue Hospital. That stigmatizing may deter some health workers from volunteering to care for Ebola victims.
Yet many nurses here and in other developed nations are prepared, willing and able to care for Ebola patients in their home nations, where there are more resources and safeguards. Since the first U.S. Ebola cases, particularly the infections of Texas nurses Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson, the nation has increased its preparedness. And our nurses have the equipment, the isolation wards, and the ability to replace electrolytes and rehydrate effectively, which is vital to Ebola care.
It is reckless to rely on the infrastructure of the very poorest countries to protect the health of the entire world. Transporting and caring for hundreds of Ebola patients would require a real investment in the short term, but we should think of it as an investment in our long-term health and well being. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control predict that unless we alter the course of the epidemic, up to 1.4 million people in Sierra Leone and Liberia combined will become infected by January 20, 2015. A global outbreak is a real possibility. We must act quickly and decisively to stop the epidemic.
We should do all we can to strengthen West Africa's health infrastructure, but it is unlikely that we can do so fast enough to stem the outbreak. To protect ourselves and prevent an enormous global health crisis, we should offer to bring all Ebola patients here now to treat them.
Sandy Summers is co-author of "Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nursing Puts Us All at Risk" and executive director of The Truth About Nursing. Her email is email@example.com.