Tech + Health

10.07.14 12:22 PM ET

Ebola Contracted in Madrid Hospital Could Spread in Europe

A Spanish nurse treating Ebola patients in one of Madrid’s best hospitals came down with the disease – and exhibited symptoms for days before seeking treatment.

A 44-year-old Spanish nurse from Madrid is the first person known to contract the deadly Ebola virus outside of Africa.   The nurse, whose name has not been released, had been on the special team at the Carlos III hospital in Madrid treating a 69-year-old Spanish priest named Manuel Garcia Viejo, who contracted the disease in Sierra Leone where the virus kills an average of 121 people a day.  Father Viejo died in the Madrid hospital on September 25, just four days after being repatriated to Spain. The Carlos III hospital says the nurse entered the priest’s room only two times during his brief hospitalization. 

The hospital and the Spanish health minister, Ana Mato, confirmed the infection.  They say that while the nurse treated the patient, she wore full protective gear and followed the protocol set in place by the World Health Organization to avoid contracting the disease.  Evidently the precautions didn’t work.

Spanish regional governor Antonio Alemany told reporters that the nurse started feeling unwell with a slight fever on September 30 and fell seriously ill while on vacation on the Spanish coast last Sunday.  She was officially diagnosed with the killer virus October 6.  She went to the emergency room at a teaching hospital in  Alcorcón southwest of Madrid, near her home, rather than going to the larger hospital where she worked, which is than 30 minutes away. She has since been transferred to the quarantine unit at Carlos III.

The Spanish press reports that she is originally from Galicia in northwest Spain. She is said to have worked at Carlos III for 15 years, and reportedly is married with no children. Her husband is said to be in isolation now.

“We’re drawing up a list of all the people she may have been in contact with, including with health professionals at the Alcorcón hospital where she is being treated,” Alemany said Monday.  So far there are at least 34 known people at risk of contracting the disease from her, including her husband, 30 people who work in or were patients at the Carlos III hospital and three who treated her at the Alcorcón clinic.

In the 24 hours before the nurse was officially diagnosed and in the five days that she felt unwell with fever, she had used public transportation, frequented bars, restaurants and supermarkets, and spent time with friends.  Many of the people she came in contact with while she was feverish and potentially contagious are virtually impossible to identify.

Ebola is not contagious during the incubation period, but becomes dangerous through direct contact when the patient starts exhibiting symptoms that include fever.  According to the World Health Organziation, “Infection occurs from direct contact through broken skin or mucous membranes with the blood, or other bodily fluids or secretions (stool, urine, saliva, semen) of infected people. Infection can also occur if broken skin or mucous membranes of a healthy person come into contact with environments that have become contaminated with an Ebola patient’s infectious fluids such as soiled clothing, bed linen, or used needles.”

The Spanish health ministry has given assurances that the Spanish public is not at risk, but consternation is growing. The infection is the first Ebola diagnosis in Europe, and the first known case where someone who has never been to the affected areas in Africa contracted the disease, which apparently incubated in the Madrid Hospital despite precautions to quarantine it.  The hospital also treated a second missionary who died in early August, and this nurse also had come in contact with him. 

Fear of an epidemic spreading across Europe has grown in recent weeks as thousands of refugees and migrants from Africa land on Italian and Spanish shores.  The fact that the first true contamination happened in the controlled environment of a hospital will do little to calm nerves.  “The nurse’s infection is something that should have never happened,” Giovanni Rezza, Italy’s chief expert on infectious disease told The Daily Beast.  “But in a case like this, only one small error in procedure can prove fatal.”