The Tennessean: Doctors say U.S. ready if Ebola comes here

Posted on September 24, 2014

The Ebola virus is as much of a threat as the Islamic State terrorists, but experts in Nashville know what to do if the disease spreading through three West African nations ever comes to the United States, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said after meeting with some of those experts Wednesday.

Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — and thus a potential committee chairman come January — led a round-table discussion on Ebola with Vanderbilt University physicians and scientists and the state epidemiologist, Dr. Tim Jones.

The senator, who is seeking re-election this fall in a campaign against Democrat Gordon Ball, also toured the laboratory of Dr. James Crowe, a professor of pediatrics who is working to develop drugs that will protect people from the virus.

“I saw them making the antibodies that they will give to health care workers treating people with Ebola,” Alexander said in an interview after the tour. “It’s not an approved solution yet, but it’s further along than anything else I’ve heard of.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in a report Tuesday that Liberia and Sierra Leone could have as many as 1.4 million cases of Ebola by January. Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal also have been struck by the outbreak of the virus, which attacks the immune system.

“Until, in the words of several of the people here, until we turn that curve downward and the number of infections starts to go down instead of up, we have an out-of-control epidemic that could be one of the most serious we’ve seen,” Alexander said. “Fortunately, Congress and the president and the rest of the world are now beginning to react to this in the way I wish we had a few months or weeks earlier. Hopefully it’s enough to turn the tide.”

Jones said public health officials operate under the assumption that someone will bring the virus into the U.S. at some point. But they would be able to “clamp down on it and control it very quickly,” he said.

“Do we think it it will ever become widespread in a community? Not at all,” Jones said. “I think we’re very well prepared.”

Crowe said the effort to develop anti-Ebola drugs could be a long one. It typically takes about 25 years and millions of dollars to take a drug from discovery to large-scale manufacturing. He said the process should be sped up to arrest Ebola long term.

“Of course we feel anxious to take the work we’ve done and push it into practice,” Crowe told reporters. “We’re working 24/7 here to get our drugs scaled up. The reality is, this current outbreak is going to be stopped by public health measures, not by drugs.”

The mortality rate for the outbreak in West Africa is about 50 percent, said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt. He said that providing more “supportive care” for Ebola patients could improve the survival rate beyond 1 out of 2 victims.

Talking ‘Roots’

Later in the day, Alexander met with a much younger audience: more than 100 children at the Andrew Jackson Club of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Middle Tennessee.

The senator told the mostly African-American youngsters at the North Nashville facility, including at least one who shared his first name, about “Roots,” the famous book about a family’s slave ancestors by Alex Haley. Haley grew up in Tennessee and stayed at the governor’s residence when Alexander was the state’s chief executive.

Saying he planned to donate a dozen copies of the book to the club, Alexander told the students he hoped they would read it and “be inspired by the fact that a young man or young woman just like you could grow up and win a Pulitzer Prize writing a book about your family.”

“There’s no reason you can’t think that big, too,” he said.