August 15, 2014 12:22 pm

Ebola outbreak: How Canadian officials are protecting our borders

WATCH: Officials at the Monrovia airport directed long queues of passengers to wash their hands before boarding flights to the United States in an effort to contain the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

TORONTO — Canada donated up to 1,000 doses of its experimental Ebola vaccine, put aid workers on the ground in West Africa and doled out millions to help the battle against the deadly virus. But what is it doing to protect Canadian hospitals, airports and other hubs for people and germs?

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The World Health Organization says the outbreak is escalating with 1,975 cases and 1,069 deaths reported in the four countries hit by the virus – Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

By Thursday, the global health authority said that beds in Ebola treatment centres are filling up faster than they can be provided, a sign that the outbreak is probably worse off than the numbers suggest.

Abroad, missionaries returning home are quarantined, hospitals and airports are on high alert, and flights out of West Africa have been scrapped.

Here’s what Canada’s doing on the home front to screen for, treat and contain the deadly virus.

At hospitals

There are two levels of response Canadian health officials can set into motion, according to Dr. Joel Kettner. He’s the medical director of the International Centre for Infectious Disease. He was Manitoba’s chief medical officer of health from 1999 to 2012.

Routine practices: The situation in West Africa is garnering concern from the Canadian public, but experts are repeating their confidence in our health care system.

Public health officials learned their lessons from SARS in 2003. Post-SARS, protocol for nurses, doctors and paramedics changed dramatically and surveillance is now in place brokering intelligence on rising diseases that could pose a threat.

READ MORE: SARS 10 years later – how has the health care system changed?

In hospitals, better ventilation, single rooms, and plexiglass walls act as a barrier between emergency room front desks and sick patients.

There’s also a set of “universal precautions” that frontline health care workers adhere to, especially when dealing with bodily fluids. They’re treated like they could be contaminated with HIV, hepatitis B or C, or Ebola, Kettner said.

“This means that health care workers must always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment if there is a risk of contact with blood or body fluid,” he told Global News.

There are gloves, a gown, eye mask and eye protection, for example.

There’s also compliance to advice doled out by health officials. (In West Africa, the WHO has even conceded that a large part of the spread is mistrust from locals.)

Canadian microbiologist and author Jason Tetro calls the country a “public leader in dealing with public health threats.

“Most of the implications that occur when you have a public health emergency are based on or parallel to what Canada already does on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

(The CDC, for example, posted a guide to its hospitals on how to manage the Ebola virus. It included Canada’s standard protocol.)

Special response: During an outbreak such as this one, there are special communications to and heightened awareness among health care providers.

Patients are now screened for a fever, cough or trouble breathing. They’re asked a critical, telling question: have they recently returned from another country?

The communication lines — between hospitals to provincial ministries, between provinces and Ottawa, and between agencies and the media to the public — are opened.

READ MORE: How health officials are responding to the Ebola outbreak globally

(Think of last week’s suspected case of Ebola in a Brampton, Ont. hospital. It was widely reported on, while the hospital and Ontario health officials provided regular updates.)

“Canada has the laboratory capacity to perform diagnostic tests, and health care facilities to take care of potentially infected patients while protecting other patients and health care staff,” Kettner explained.

At airports

Quarantine officers are at all of Canada’s international airports — Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, for example — and they work around the clock, seven days a week, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“We have comprehensive procedures in place at our borders to identify sick travellers arriving in Canada,” the agency’s spokesman Patrick Gaebel says.

And then there’s the Quarantine Act, which would help in detection and management of sick travellers. It requires travellers to report to CBSA agents if they’re ill upon arrival. Airlines and flight attendants are also required to report sick passengers coming off of international flights.

If you’re flagged as a sick passenger by border guards, customs officers or airline staff, you could be isolated in a quarantine assessment room — they’re available at most Canadian airports.

READ MORE: How Canadian docs are fighting Ebola during the world’s worst outbreak

That’s where you’re assessed to check for any symptoms and you could be transferred to hospital, or told to follow up with your family doctor.

Then it’s up to the hospital to decide if you should be isolated, Gaebel explained.

(Keep in mind, quarantine and isolation aren’t the same thing. Quarantine refers to control measures applied to healthy people who might have been exposed to a disease. It’s a pre-emptive measure to make sure he or she doesn’t spread the disease to others.

Isolation refers to protecting others from someone who’s already infectious.)

On the global front

The WHO, in its international public health emergency declaration, provided advice to countries based on how vulnerable they are.

READ MORE: What the WHO’s international health emergency declaration means

“The risk for Canada and Canadians at this point appears to be very low,” Kettner said.

For now, it’s only advising countries like Canada to be prepared to detect, investigate, and manage Ebola cases.

Canada’s gone a step further than the WHO, too. It issued a travel advisory warning all travellers to avoid unnecessary travel to West Africa, namely Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Liberia.

READ MORE: Health agency urges Canadians to stay away from Ebola-affected countries

The WHO, at this point, hasn’t recommended a general travel ban.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© Shaw Media, 2014

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