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AUG 19/2014

The Ebola outbreak: How nurses can prepare themselves

It will not have escaped the attention of anyone in NHS nursing jobs that the last few months have given rise to a new global outbreak of the Ebola virus - one of the world's most devastating diseases.

Since its emergence in south-east Guinea earlier this year, the virus has quickly spread across west Africa, leading the World Health Organization to declare it a public health emergency of international concern.

Although the UK and its residents are not at any great risk of infection at the moment, it remains important for NHS nurses to understand the nature of the outbreak and the steps they can take to ensure that British patients remain safe and protected.

The disease and its spread
Ebola is a particularly severe form of viral haemorrhagic fever (VHF) that causes intense weakness, muscle pain, headaches and sore throats, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver functions, and sometimes internal and external bleeding.

First discovered in 1976, the disease is spread through close contact with infected bodily fluids and is extremely deadly, with outbreaks having a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of any effective vaccines or drug therapies to combat the virus.

This latest outbreak began in Guinea in February 2014 and spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Already, there have been more than 2,000 suspected and confirmed cases, with potentially in excess of 1,100 people dying, making this one of the largest Ebola outbreaks in history.

What can UK nurses do?
Despite the rapid spread of the disease in west Africa, the British government has classified the risk of the outbreak having a serious impact on the UK as being low - even though travellers to affected nations could feasibly return carrying the infection, British hospitals are much better prepared to handle infectious diseases than those in less developed nations.

However, government agencies such as Public Health England and industry organisations like the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) are keen to remind nurses that remaining vigilant is an essential part of ensuring that the UK remains insulated against Ebola.

According to the RCN's guidance, a number of groups should consider themselves at elevated risk of catching VHF, including in-flight/repatriation nurses, practice nurses and those working in assessment or A&E units. Staff in roles working overseas, in support of immigration centres or in infection prevention and health protection also need to be especially mindful.

It is vital that all hospitals take the opportunity to review their preparedness arrangements, including shoring up staff knowledge and awareness of local infection prevention and control policies for managing VHF, memorising key contact points both during and out of hours.

Protective clothing needs to be readily available when dealing with high-risk infections such as these, with comprehensive procedures governing how to remove personal protective equipment in the correct order and what to do after removal needing to be followed.

Other key RCN-recommended steps include testing all respiratory equipment and making sure suitable isolation facilities are available when needed and maintained in line with Department of Health regulations.

By doing so, nurses can play a key role in ensuring that the impact of not only Ebola, but all other high-risk infections can be managed and minimised to the fullest possible extent.

Check out the WHO website for more information on Ebola.

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