Ebola survivor says virus difficult to stamp out

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

There are lessons to be learned from the Ebola outbreak of 2014 because the dreaded virus is not going away, Dr. Craig Spencer said Tuesday while recounting his tale of surviving the disease after treating patients in West Africa.

Spencer, a graduate of Grosse Pointe North High School and Wayne State University Medical School, said Ebola cases in West Africa are starting to rise again following months of decline. U.S. medical schools should do more to prepare American doctors to help out, he told medical students at a packed lecture hall at WSU’s Detroit campus, where he received the Global Peacemaker Award from WSU's Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.

“The virus is having a hard time going away,” he said. “There’s normalcy that’s coming back, but it’s not a reason to be complacent.

“If we think the crisis is over, the compassion, the money and the volunteers leave. And there’s still a problem.” Spencer added. “It’s going to be incredibly difficult to stamp this out.”

Spencer, 33, talked about the disparity in resources that allowed him to receive first-class treatment at New York City’s Belleview Hospital while more than 23,000 West Africans with suspected or confirmed cases of Ebola have struggled to find doctors.

“Some of our best medical centers and medical schools have made it nearly impossible to volunteer to work in West Africa,” he said. “They’ve effectively banned faculty, students, nurses and doctors from going to West Africa.

“The number of infections for Doctors Without Borders is unbelievably low. (Universities worry that) people like me are going to get sick. Medical centers don’t want that, for public relations.. It doesn’t look good.”

Spencer traced the world’s worst Ebola outbreak from its origins in Guinea, where it was first detected in March, as it spread to nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“There’s a one kilometer walk to Liberia,” he said. “The border is a small river that people can walk across. You can get from one place to another really quickly. This could not have happened in any worse place.”

“In March, Doctors Without Borders said this is going to be worse than anything we’ve seen, and they called for help, and no one came,” Spencer said. “It took until August for international recognition of the problem.

Spencer, who worked with Doctors Without Borders, returned to New York in October after spending a month in Guinea treating Ebola patients. He monitored himself for symptoms while going about his daily routine, riding the subway and even going bowling. But on Oct. 23, six days after re-entering the United States, he came down with a fever and tested positive for Ebola.

Though Spencer immediately contacted health authorities and was hospitalized, his freedom to move about the city spurred a national debate about whether health workers returning from West Africa should be quarantined.

The disease cannot be spread by people who aren’t showing symptoms, and unnecessarily quarantining health workers will discourage them from volunteering, Spencer said.

Dr. Bonita Stanton, vice dean of research at the medical school, said Spencer twice contributed to the fight against Ebola, first by volunteering, and now by publicly sharing his experience.

“These are very brave and bold actions,” Stanton said, “by a very remarkable individual.”