Just when you thought the Ebola Crisis couldn’t get any worse. It does. Especially, if you are like me and happen to be an animal lover. And I am sure there are plenty of people like me.
Health officials in Texas, must now confront a second dilemma. What should be done with a pet dog, belonging to the Texas hospital nurse who contracted Ebola from the patient she was nursing, who later died from the disease?
Not only did the nurse interact with other people and of course she was completely innocent to the fact that she had become infected. She also interacted with her dog, a King Charles spaniel. Needless to say health authorities have no idea if dogs can catch and spread Ebola in the same way humans can.
Health authorities claim they are trying to find a place where they can monitor the dog, to see if it develops Ebola symptoms. The nurse’s apartment has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. She was admitted to a hospital isolation unit and is reported to be in a stable condition. Texan authorities say her dog will be looked after. But to what extent that statement is a pet lover talking, or simply a deliberate attempt to avoid the torrent of criticism because of what occurred in Spain recently, is anyone’s guess.
Spain was confronted with a similar scenario to Texas. A Spanish nursing assistant also contracted Ebola from a patient. She too had a dog. And while the dog showed no signs of having the virus, Spanish authorities, who were clearly not animal lovers, decided it should be put to sleep. The decision caused a public uproar. Animal rights activists took to the streets to protest the decision in more than 20 cities across Spain. An online petition attracted more than 400 thousand signatures.
I have some sympathy for authorities because this is a really tough call. According to the World Health Organization, Ebola is found in a number of animals like fruit bats, monkeys, apes, chimpanzees and pigs. One of the ways that humans get Ebola in Africa, is by eating bush meat infected with the virus.
A study from 2005, suggests there is a theoretical possibility that dogs can pass the disease on to humans, but nothing is confirmed and the only option for health authorities is to recommend caution.
In 2001, an Ebola outbreak in the African country of Gabon, found traces of Ebola anti-bodies in dogs, which is a sign that they were infected at some point. But where and how they were infected, nobody can answer.
A University Professor in the UK, who is also an Ebola expert, said the wisest move would be to assume that dogs represent a risk to humans but if you want a truthful answer no-one can confirm it because no-one has conducted the necessary research.
Ebola spreads through close body contact with someone infected with the disease. The virus is found in bodily fluids such as blood, vomit, faeces, urine or semen. There has to be an entry point for the infection to be transferred such as having sex, cutting the skin, or touching the mouth, nose or eyes. That’s why health workers wear fully protective suits when they come into contact with an infected patient. The most transmissible fluids are blood, faeces and vomit. But the virus can also be found in the saliva and sweat of patients who are extremely ill with Ebola.
The symptoms include, headache, muscle pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pain or unexplained bruising or bleeding.
But does it mean that by coming into contact with dog faeces or secretions from a pet, belonging to an Ebola patient, you will also contract the disease? The answer is no-one knows.
The US Center For Disease Control and Prevention, is at pains to point out that there are no reports of pets becoming sick or playing any kind of role, so far, in the transmission of Ebola to humans. The center is currently working with the American Veterinary Medical Association, and others, to help develop guidelines to cover the US pet population.
Ebola has killed more than four thousand people. The number of cases is currently double that. There is evidence to suggest that Africa could reach more than a million Ebola cases by the end of the year. We need to fight this thing with everything we have got because potentially it threatens the entire world.
But it would be even more tragic and cruel and heartbreaking to discover that dogs and cats have a role to play in its transmission to humans. Clearly, it is one more question we need to answer urgently.