Tag Archives: ebola

Patient zero believed to have gotten Ebola from bats

By Kim Smiley

Scientists believe they have identified the origin of the ongoing Ebola outbreak.  The first person believed to have contracted Ebola was a two-year-old boy named Emile Ouamouno from a village called Meliandou in Guinea.  The fact that patient zero was a small child is unusual since he is too young to have been a hunter or travel far from the village alone.  His exposure to bushmeat, which has been identified as a likely culprit for transmission to humans in previous Ebola outbreaks, was also limited.

So how did a young boy contract Ebola?  A Cause Map, a form of visual root cause analysis, can be built to help analyze this issue.  A Cause Map intuitively lays out the causes that contributed to a problem to show the cause-and-effect relationships.  (Click on “Download PDF” above to view a high level Cause Map.)  As the Cause Map shows, researchers believe the boy was exposed to bats that carried Ebola.

Children from the village liked to play in a nearby hollow tree filled with Angolan free-tailed bats. Researchers believe that the boy may have come into contact with either bats infected with Ebola or their feces.   Unfortunately, the tree burned in the time since the Ebola epidemic started and researchers were unable to take samples from it, so it cannot be confirmed conclusively that the bats in the tree spread Ebola.  This information would have been particularly useful because this species of bats has not been previously linked to Ebola and Angolan free-tailed bats commonly live near people.  The scientists were able to rule out larger mammals such as chimpanzees and antelopes as the source of the current outbreak.

Tracking the origins of Ebola has proved difficult, in part because Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transmitted between species.  Bats have long been suspected of being carriers of Ebola, but scientists have never been able to conclusively prove which animals are responsible for human Ebola outbreaks.  Ebola outbreaks tend to occur in remote areas where it’s difficult to gather data in a timely manner, especially in the midst of an Ebola outbreak.  Cultural differences can also make research difficult because local populations are often suspicious of the researchers, many of who are foreigners.

The current Ebola outbreak has killed nearly 8,000 people and is still spreading.  As populations grow and people are exposed to more animals, outbreaks like this may become more common.  If the species responsible for spreading Ebola could be identified, researchers would be better able to prevent future Ebola cases and possibly prevent outbreaks from occurring.

If you are curious, here are some interesting articles on lessons learned during the Ebola Outbreak –

Malaria killing thousands more than Ebola in West Africa

Ebola’s lessons, painfully learned at great cost in dollars and human lives

The Race to Develop an Ebola Vaccine

By Kim Smiley

Traditional public health methods have not been able to stop the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa and some experts are speculating that a vaccine may be necessary to quash the outbreak.  The only problem is an approved vaccine against Ebola doesn’t exist.

A Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, can be built to analyze this issue by intuitively laying out the causes that contribute to the problem.  A Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and documenting the answers on the Cause Map to show the cause-and-effect relationships.

So why isn’t there an approved Ebola vaccine?  There are several promising vaccines in development, but some of them are newer efforts that haven’t had time to go through the lengthy approval process.  A few potential vaccines have been around for years, but development stalled prior to the necessary human trials.  Prior to this year, there was limited potential revenue from an Ebola vaccine because of the limited demand so it has never been a high-priority product. Demand for, and interest in, producing an Ebola vaccine, has of course skyrocketed as a result of the ongoing epidemic in West Africa and Ebola cases popping up in other countries.

Now that companies are putting significant resources in the race to produce an Ebola vaccine there are still huge logistical obstacles that must be overcome.  At least two different vaccines should be ready for large-scale human trials early next year, but actually distributing the vaccine and tracking volunteers will require significant resources.  The vaccine must be kept at a constant temperature which can be difficult in regions of West Africa without reliability electricity.  Keeping track of thousands of volunteers is always a massive undertaking, but will be even more challenging in the middle of an epidemic in a region where the medical systems are overtaxed.  There is also a chance for significant political fallout if the vaccine created by Western countries and given to poor African nations turns out to have harmful side effects.

This topic raises some really difficult ethical issues.  How much do you fast-track a vaccine?  People are dying and an effective vaccine would save lives, but distributing a vaccine prior to the normally required testing could also result in significant human suffering if there is an unexpected side effect.  When has a vaccine been tested “enough” to justify giving it to people in a high-risk environment?  Even designing the human trials requires some hard decisions.  Do you conduct a blind study with a control group, knowing that some of that group is statistically likely to be infected with a deadly disease? There is a lot of gray area and it’s difficult to know what the right answer is.  Thousands of lives may hang in the balance and there isn’t a lot precedence in how best to respond to the challenge of this Ebola outbreak.

If you’d like to learn more about this epidemic, you can read our previous blogs:

Patient With Ebola Sent Home From ER

Ebola Outbreak Claiming Lives of Medical Staff

Hundreds Affected in ‘Unprecedented’ Ebola Outbreak


Patient With Ebola Sent Home From ER

By Kim Smiley

If you have been paying any attention to the news lately you have heard that a patient was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States for the first time.  The fact that the patient sought treatment at an emergency room (ER) and was sent home is particularly alarming and people are naturally very interested in how such a thing could happen.

The media has been flooded with breaking news about this case. In situations like this, keeping track of what information is current and reliable and what is already outdated or has been determined to be inaccurate can be a moving target.  A Cause Map, a visual format for performing a root cause analysis, can be useful in these situations as a way to document the available information.  A Cause Map visually lays out the causes that contributed to an issue in an intuitive format.  It is relatively easy to quickly expand a Cause Map as more information becomes available.

Generally, a Cause Map is built in an Excel workbook so old versions of the Cause Map can be easily saved as different tabs and that the evolution of the investigation isn’t lost.  Additionally, it’s easy to add evidence supporting each individual cause onto the Cause Map itself so that all relevant information is documented in one location and easily referenced.  There are often things that are being considered that may have played a role in a problem, but lack evidence to determine whether or not they are actually relevant to the investigation.  This situation can be documented on a Cause Map by listing the potential cause and adding a question mark to show that a cause is being considered, but that it needs more evidence.  If that cause is later determined to not have been a factor it can be crossed out to document that it has been considered so that no work is duplicated.

So what information is known at this point about the patient with Ebola who was sent home from the ER?  A man has been diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, Texas.  Statements by friends and family indicate that he helped transport a sick woman prior to traveling to the US.  It’s not clear whether he knew that she had Ebola or not.  After being exposed to Ebola, he passed through the airport screening because he did not have a fever at that time and he did not indicate possible exposure on the required questionnaire.   He arrived in Dallas, Texas on September 20, 2014.

His family has stated that he started feeling ill on the 24th and he sought treatment at a hospital on September 26.  He was released with a prescription for antibiotics.  Ebola can be difficult to diagnose because the early symptoms, such as fever and muscle pains, are very nonspecific.  The only information the hospital would have had to indicate that patient might have Ebola is his travel history.  Statements by the hospital indicate that the patient told the nurse he had recently been in Liberia.  The travel history information doesn’t seem to have been known by physicians that treated the patient.  Initial statements by the hospital indicated that issues with electronic health records may have played a role in the confusion, but later released more information that modified their position.  Exactly how the risk of Ebola was missed isn’t clear and this portion of the Cause Map will need to be expanded as more information is available.

It is not shocking that an Ebola case would be diagnosed in the US with travelers still arriving from West Africa and the long incubation period.  As long as Ebola is still a problem in Africa, US hospitals could see more patients with Ebola and need to be prepared for the possibility.  But it is concerning that someone who had recently traveled from West Africa with a fever wouldn’t trigger any alarms at an ER.   Individuals with Ebola must be quickly identified and isolated In order to prevent the spread of the deadly disease and hospitals in the US need to ensure that no other potential Ebola patients fall through the cracks.

Click on “Download PDF” above to see an initial intermediate level Cause Map for this example.

Ebola Outbreak Claiming Lives of Medical Staff

By ThinkReliability Staff

On July 29, 2014, the ongoing Ebola epidemic in west Africa was hit a hard blow when Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, a leading doctor who treated Ebola patients and  national hero in Sierra Leone, died from the deadly virus.  The outbreak, which began this spring, has now infected thousands and killed nearly 900 people across Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, including more than 90 healthcare workers who were treating victims.  It’s the most widespread and deadliest yet, due to the relative ease of travel and an apparently new strain of the disease.  (Read our previous blog about the outbreak.)

Because of the deadly and quick-spreading nature of the Ebola virus, many precautions are taken to protect healthcare workers from the disease.  Says Marie-Christine Ferir, the Emergency Coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders, “As well as the personal protective equipment that our staff wears, we have a series of strict procedures and protocols.  Our treatment centers are designed to ensure the safest possible working environment for our staff.”  Adds Dr. Tom Frieden, the Director of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “We work actively to educate American health-care workers on how to isolate patients and how to protect themselves against infection.”

Yet workers are still getting sick – and dying.  In an interview with Armand Sprecher, the medical advisor to Doctors Without Borders, he noted that, though the suits worn by healthcare workers when dealing with infected patients are impervious to fluid, procedures and protocols still have to be followed.  For example, wearing or taking off the suit improperly can cause fluid transfer to the face, or hands, which then may touch the face.  An accidental needle stick can also result in a transfer of fluids that can lead to infection.

Now people in other countries are concerned Ebola may spread further.   In order to give stricken healthcare workers the best shot possible, they are generally returned to their home countries for treatment, raising concerns that their presence will allow the virus to take root there.  An American doctor and nurse were returned to the United States for treatment on August 2nd and August 4th, respectively.  Officials note that every precaution is being taken to isolate the patients and that Ebola can be spread only by bodily fluids, which requires very close contact.

Though there are no vaccines or currently approved treatment for Ebola, the infected American personnel received experimental treatment while still in Liberia. The treatment attempts to use antibodies produced by animals exposed to Ebola to help the immune system fight off the virus.  Dr. Brantly received a blood transfusion from a boy who survived Ebola under his care (surviving Ebola appears to provide immunity against re-infection).  Both vaccines and treatments are in development, but funding is difficult given the relative rarity of Ebola.

In the ongoing attempt to contain the spread of the virus, Sierra Leone has quarantined neighborhoods, cancelled public meetings and overseas trips, while Liberia has closed schools, most borders, and put state employees on leave.  The CDC has issued a Level 3 Travel Warning to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  The World Health Organization has launched a $100 million campaign with the aim of bringing the epidemic under control, partially by providing new doctors.

To view the impacts this disease is having on the public as well as healthcare professionals, the causes of these impacts and what is being done to reduce the risk of these impacts, please click on “Download PDF” above.  Or read our previous blog to learn more about the outbreak.


Hundreds Affected in ‘Unprecedented’ Ebola Outbreak

By ThinkReliability Staff

The ongoing Ebola epidemic in Africa is “unprecedented” due to its high mortality rate (up to 90%), geographic spread (at least 5 countries have reported cases of the disease, which has spread to urban areas as well), and difficulty enforcing quarantines that would reduce the spread.  As with many outbreaks, the factors involved are complex and wide-ranging.

We can address the issues contributing to the outbreak by capturing them in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis. This intuitive method ties impacted goals to cause-and-effect relationships, allowing development of solutions to all aspects of an issue.

First we begin with the impacts to the goals.  The outbreak began in Guinea at some point in early 2014, but was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 23, 2014.  The outbreak is still ongoing and has impacted Guinea the most, but has also spread to neighboring countries.  The strain involved is the Zaire Ebola virus, which is spread by bodily fluids.

At the date of publication, the virus has killed at least 101 out of 157 infected in Guinea alone.  The infections and deaths, as well as the spread of the disease, can be considered impacts to the public safety goal.  This is the first outbreak to have impacted urban Guinea, though there have been dozens of outbreaks in Africa over the past 40 years.

“Why” questions are used to determine the cause-and-effect relationships that resulted in the impacted goals.  Death typically results from bleeding or shock, which occurs due to infection with the virus and insufficient treatment. Infection results from the initial transmission (caused by eating raw infected meat), and the spread of the disease.  The spread in this case has resulted from the unusual migratory pattern, both because of the easy and frequent travel between countries but also due to an as-yet-unknown factor.  Normal outbreaks involve a much smaller geographic area.) Victims are contagious for a long time, meaning the disease is easily spread, and it has been difficult to enforce quarantine, because of mistrust of local authorities and foreign aid workers.  According to Stéphane Hugonnet  of WHO, “The mortality rate is extremely important.  Nine out of ten patients will die.  If we look at this from the population’s perspective, why would you go to a hospital if you have almost zero chance of getting out of it.”  However, with effective care, there is a chance of surviving Ebola.

However, providing that care is another challenge.  There is no cure for Ebola, possibly because financial incentives to develop a cure for a rare disease that primarily strikes poor African villages isn’t there. Care essentially involves keeping a person alive long enough for their body to be able to fight back, difficult in a country that has 0.1 physicians for every 1,000 people fighting a disease that rapidly replicates and – through an unknown mechanism – disables the immune system.

So what’s being done to end this outbreak?  Medical teams from Doctors without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières) and WHO have been dispatched to the area.   These medical teams may include anthropologists, to better address local concerns regarding the disease.  WHO has also recommended limiting personal contact and a on raw bush meat.  Meanwhile, researchers are working on a vaccine to prevent  transmission of Ebola.  It is hoped that these steps together will end this outbreak – and prevent future outbreaks as well.

To view the Outline, Cause Map and Solutions, please click “Download PDF” above.