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Training Is Key In Lowering Risk For Health Care Workers Treating Ebola


For more on the risks facing the healthcare workers who care for patients with Ebola, we reached out to Dr. Suzanne Donovan. She's an infectious disease specialist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. And she's worked with the World Health Organization in Sierra Leone to help prevent Ebola infections of healthcare workers there.

She says there are proven ways to prevent an Ebola infection. But if there are lapses, it is a very unforgiving disease. When we spoke, I asked her about where those breaches in protocol commonly happen.

SUZANNE DONOVAN: Breaches in protocols can occur in several different steps of taking care of a patient. The first step is when you're putting on your gear. And we call that donning your gear. But in my experience, that's not where they occur. They may occur during the care of the patient. They may adjust their gear and contaminate a mucous membrane because they're itching.

And when I was working in Sierra Leone, sometimes we would have flies enter our goggles. And some healthcare workers would be tempted to adjust their goggles because of that. Obviously, that's not a risk here in the United States.

And then also sharp injuries - so they may be putting in an IV or doing a blood draw and have a needle stick. That would be a very very high risk exposure. But the most common time when healthcare workers may have an exposure is when they take off their equipment. And that's called doffing their equipment.

And so it's very very important that the equipment is taken off in a very methodical manner so that during that doffing process they don't accidentally contaminate any of their mucous membranes.

And I think it's really important that there is no finger-pointing at the healthcare worker so that the healthcare worker did something wrong because this is all about training and having the appropriate equipment.

RATH: If the proper protocols are followed just to the letter, do they always prevent infection or is there always going to be some degree of risk?

DONOVAN: Well, I think following the proper protocols makes you as safe as you can be. A 100 percent guarantee doesn't exist in any healthcare setting. I think the critical thing to remember is the number one priority is healthcare worker safety. And if you have a higher level of protection that is available, then we should be using it.

RATH: You've been out there yourself. The last time we spoke to you was when you'd just returned from Sierra Leone, one of the places hardest hit by Ebola. When you hear about another healthcare worker getting infected, what goes through your mind?

DONOVAN: Well, that's very difficult for me because I witnessed that in Sierra Leone. That was one of the things that I really spent a lot of time trying to implement processes and training that would help protect healthcare workers in a country that had very limited resources and in a very challenging environment where I was working.

I think in a country like the United States, where there's very few cases, the environment is very safe and the equipment is readily available. I find that very disconcerting that a healthcare worker had an exposure and is infected. I think we need to look at the processes that occurred in that institution and ensure they never happen again.

RATH: That's Dr. Suzanne Donovan. She's an infectious disease specialist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. We reached her on the line from Nairobi, Kenya, where she's attending a conference on the response to Ebola. Dr. Donovan, thanks very much.

DONOVAN: You're very welcome, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.