Europe’s Hidden Ebola Cases
The Continent prepares for the virus to spread, but for many, it’s already here.
ROME, Italy — If you were surprised to hear the news that a Sudanese United Nations worker died of the deadly Ebola virus in a Berlin hospital on Tuesday, you might be even more surprised to learn just how many Ebola patients there are elsewhere in Europe.
The World Health Organization maintains that there are eight confirmed cases of the deadly virus in Europe tied to the current outbreak: two dead missionaries in Spain, one dead doctor in Germany, one cured man and one doctor in treatment in Germany, two tropical disease doctors in treatment in Holland and a Spanish nurse, Teresa Romero Ramos, under treatment in Spain. Romero Ramos contracted the virus from one of the dead Spanish missionaries. There are also at least a dozen or more suspect cases scattered around European hospitals that may or may not evolve into the full-blown virus.
Spain was the first country to accept important patients in Europe; it was also the first country to report a transmission outside of West Africa. There is at least one nurse under quarantine in Germany who treated the deceased doctor there. If she is infected, she will now be the fourth health worker outside of West Africa who contracted the disease in a sterile hospital after Romero and Nina Pham, an American nurse who contracted the disease from Thomas Eric Duncan, who died in Dallas, Texas last week. On Wednesday another health worker who treated Duncan tested positive for the deadly virus.
Perhaps less surprising than the number of Ebola patients scattered around Europe is the number of false alarms and suspected cases in Europe’s capital cities. As of Wednesday, there were suspected Ebola patients in hospitals in Cyprus, Rome, Brussels, Paris and London. The corpse of a British man who died in Macedonia is being flown to Frankfurt for Ebola testing. More than 100 people who were in contact with the Spanish nurse are under surveillance, being asked to take their temperatures twice a day; 16 people are under quarantine, including her beautician and housekeeper.
There are also cases of blatant racism tied to the virus. Ghanaian soccer player Michael Essien, who plays for AC Milan, has been the subject of what borders on fear mongering. An Italian sports newspaper reported the rumor that he was Ebola-positive, backed up by quotes from players who said they were nervous to play on the field with him. He took to Twitter and Instagram to shoot the rumors down. “The Ebola virus is a very serious issue and people shouldn’t joke about it,” he wrote.
In Rome, in the Portuense neighborhood where the city’s main infectious disease hospital called Spallanzani is located, residents are wary. “I’m sure they have everything they need inside the hospital,” Maria Cristina Gallo told The Daily Beast as she pushed her two-year-old granddaughter in a stroller. Gallo, who lives down the street from the hospital, feels vulnerable. “What if a person with Ebola asked me for directions to find the hospital? What about what happens before they get into the ‘safe’ environment? We are all at risk.”
Gallo’s concerns are multiplied by daily news reports. In the last 48 hours in Italy alone it would appear there have been at least five “suspect” cases of Ebola: people who had been in West Africa within the last two weeks who checked in to the country’s numerous emergency rooms. One man was having an epileptic seizure; one had a nosebleed; one had full-blown African Malaria; one had the flu.
And that’s just Italy. Similar scenes are played out in cities across Europe.
In each case, the suspected patients were isolated and quarantined and are currently being tested for the virus even though their more obvious symptoms prevailed. “It is difficult not to panic,” Flavio Tuzi, secretary general for the police union told The Daily Beast. “But we are not prepared. Our security personnel have the number to dial for infectious disease control, but not the biological suits to protect themselves.”
One of the biggest concerns in Europe is the frequency of air traffic with West Africa. European hubs are a natural stopping point for many flights from Africa to other regions. A number of routes by major carriers have been suspended, but many still run flights. The United Nations and the World Health Organization have urged airlines not to cut off West Africa, pleading that continuing flights is the only way to save lives.
On Tuesday afternoon some of Italy’s emergency plans were put to the test when a Turkish Airways flight from Istanbul to Pisa made an emergency landing in Rome. According to the airport authority, two passengers from Bangladesh—a mother and daughter—started exhibiting Ebola symptoms. When they told flight attendants they had been to West Africa, alarm bells rang and the flight was diverted. They were taken off the plane by emergency officials dressed in biohazard suits and first screened at Rome’s airport before being rushed to Rome’s Spallanzani hospital in a special ambulance. The rest of the passengers were asked to leave contact information in case the two suspect passengers test positive for the deadly virus, so they can be contacted if they need to start taking their own temperatures. The Turkish Airlines flight then continued on to its final destination.
The same day, Ebola panic struck the Glasgow airport after a passenger on a Dutch KLM flight fell ill. After emergency workers rushed to the scene and secured the area, the patient was diagnosed with the flu, not Ebola.
Passengers departing the worst affected nations are all screened before departures, but few European airports outside the United Kingdom have begun regular screening of incoming flights. Airports in major cities do say they have measures in place and special ambulances ready to whisk away anyone who starts exhibiting Ebola symptoms on a flight. But checking for temperatures proves futile if an Ebola carrier hasn’t started exhibiting symptoms. Most people are expected to self-monitor and alert authorities if their temperature rises.
Part of the apparent panic stems from the different ways countries disseminate their information. In Italy and Spain, for instance, transparency is not always part of the national psyche, so information tends to “leak” which makes it seem secretive. Doctors in France, Germany and Holland have instead chosen to use information to immunize people against their fears. “It is not enough to reassure the population,” Dr. William Dab, head of Hygiene and Security at France’s National Conservatory of Arts and Sciences, told the national French newspaper Le Monde. “You have to tell them there is a ‘weak’ risk.”
Dab says the truth—however frightening it may be—ultimately will keep people calm. “It is important focus on more than reassuring messages, as exemplified by what happened in the U.S .and Spain,” he told Le Monde. “You have to recognize the possibility of a mistake to fight the disease effectively.” He also said health care providers should not gloss over possible or suspect cases. “It is imperative the health services retain their credibility. Rumors will considerably increase worries among the population.”
And with each false alarm, the not-so-subtle panic continues, as Europe waits and wonders what happens next.
—With Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam