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Published On: Mon, Aug 25th, 2014

Nurses Play a Vital Role During Dangerous Outbreaks

The recent Ebola outbreak has killed more than 1,200 people in West Africa, making it the region’s deadliest battle with Ebola since the virus was discovered in 1976. In the trenches, nurses not only treat patients but also provide education to halt the spread of Ebola.

DFID—UK Dept. or International Development from Flickr Creative Commons.

DFID—UK Dept. or International Development from Flickr Creative Commons.

In developing countries, nurses often receive training on the job. In the U.S. and in other developed countries, they go through systematic training at colleges and universities and complete strict licensing requirements before entering practice. Their efforts are essential to containing dangerous disease outbreaks and to providing compassionate care to those who are suffering.

Helping the Sick

Nurses provide the bulk of direct patient care during outbreaks. They administer medications, manage patient hygiene, provide food and water, and change bedding. Nurses also manage triage, prioritizing who needs care most quickly and in some cases, identifying patients that cannot be saved. Because Ebola’s early symptoms mimic those of malaria, nurses test each patient’s blood to determine which patients to immediately isolate.

In Ebola wards, nurses wear biohazard suits when taking care of patients to protect themselves from contracting the disease. Because so much of nursing is hands-on, nurses are at particular risk for contracting the illness.

For example, struggling Ebola patients often fall out of bed. Nurses work together to decontaminate the bed, clean the patient, and lift the patient back into bed. They also disinfect the floor where the patient fell. All of these activities put them at risk for exposure to the virus.

image by US Army Africa from Flickr Creative Commons.

image by US Army Africa from Flickr Creative Commons.

Designing Population-Wide Care

In addition to providing frontline patient care, nurses who earn advanced nursing degrees design care delivery models on a population-wide basis. They assist during all three stages of the disaster cycle: preparedness, response, and recovery. In the preparedness phase, nurses work to prevent disasters from happening and to ensure that local facilities are prepared to handle outbreaks. They assess the population to determine who has the greatest risk of becoming infected. In addition, they oversee drills designed not only for patient care administration but also for implementing orders to shelter in place, evacuate, or handle mass casualties.

When responding to an outbreak, public health nurses choose facilities to house sick patients and coordinate transportation and care between facilities. They bring together community resources to treat the sick, and they respond in real-time to changes on the ground. After an outbreak, nurses help communities to recover. They help facilities with depleted resources to bring staffing and supplies levels back to normal. They also help communities to cope with any long-term health consequences from the outbreak.

image by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from Flickr Creative Commons.

image by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from Flickr Creative Commons.

Providing Education to Prevent Disease Spread

During outbreaks, nurses play vital roles as patient educators, particularly when local traditions are making disease spread worse.

In West Africa, nurses are helping to spread the word about preventing Ebola infections, advising people to avoid touching shared towels or anything that could come into contact with an infected person. They also advise people not to shake hands, kiss, or engage in sexual contact because a male who has recovered from Ebola still carries the virus in his semen for up to seven weeks. In addition, they caution people against consuming raw bushmeat, especially in Guinea, where fruit bats are considered a local delicacy.

Another public health challenge causing Ebola to spread is the way that West Africans treat their dead. When preparing the dead for burial, families often hug or embrace their deceased loved ones. Also, West Africans traditionally shave the heads of dead men or braid the hair of dead women, all of which can put them in contact with Ebola. In Monrovia, some have left the dead bodies of Ebola victims in the streets. Nurses, combining both their medical knowledge and their positions of public trust, work tirelessly provide education when tradition clashes with infection prevention.

Nurses and Public Health

In the wake of 9/11 and fears about diseases like bird flu, America has stepped up its preparedness for potential outbreaks. Many nurses, especially public health nurses, specialize in making sure that the U.S. health system is prepared for disasters. American public health nurses have also traveled overseas to provide aid during the Ebola outbreak, bringing their expertise to communities that might not have implemented effective infection safeguards. Their courage amidst extraordinary circumstances continues to be a credit to the nursing profession.

 

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