Europe's first victim
A Spanish nurse who caught Ebola causes consternation across Europe
Taking precautions, after the event
FEAR spreads faster than disease. News on October 6th of a case of Ebola in Madrid, the first contracted outside west Africa, where the disease has killed 3,400 people since March, caused Spaniards to worry not only about its spread but also about the competence of their health authorities.
The victim is a 44-year-old hospital worker, Teresa Romero, who had volunteered to help when two Spanish missionaries were flown home from west Africa and later died of the disease. Health workers in Africa are among Ebola's most frequent victims. But in the developed world hospitals have elaborate protocols to minimise the danger of contagion. Ms Romero should have been wearing the right protective clothing, have known the safety protocols properly, and been quickly spotted as a danger to public health once she fell ill.
Yet after Ms Romero caught the virus, she spent ten days on holiday in Madrid, sat a public exam and visited a health centre and hospital with her early symptoms to seek help. Ms Romero wore protective clothing at work and claimed that she had followed the protocols. She even rang the hospital where she had worked to ask for advice on dealing with her symptoms, but her temperature was not deemed high enough to cause concern. Eventually she was taken by ambulance to her local hospital rather than to one that specialises in Ebola cases, requiring a further move some hours later. Full isolation protocols were reportedly only applied some time after her arrival at the first hospital.
Ebola is not easy to contract. It usually requires contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Doctors say that Ms Romero recalled touching her face with a gloved hand after changing a nappy for one patient. They think the risks of further contagion are small, though six people, including her husband, were in isolation as The Economist went to press. Some 50 health workers who had been in contact with her are being closely monitored. The couple's dog was also put down.
Hospital staff complain that they had only between 15 minutes and half an hour of training on protocols and how to put on protective clothing before dealing with Ebola patients. In some cases duct tape was used to seal clothing. The authorities admit that Ms Romero should perhaps have been isolated earlier.
Medical staff point to cuts in Madrid's health service, where spending has fallen by 2% over the past three years. The authorities deny that training was slack and accuse Ms Romero of failing to give doctors full information. Jaume Ribera at IESE, a business school, says Spain should have fewer but better-prepared people treating victims of Ebola.