The first Korean suspected of having contracted Ebola tested negative in the preliminary test for the deadly virus, but it is too early to feel relieved. The patient remains under close monitoring as the incubation period for the Ebola virus is 21 days and the conclusive test results are available six to 10 days after exposure to the virus.
The volunteer health care worker was transported to Charite University Medicine in Berlin on January 3 after scraping an index finger with a needle while drawing blood from an Ebola patient in Sierra Leone on December 30.
The worker is part of a 10-member Korean medical team of four doctors and six nurses ― five military personnel and five civilians. The team received training in Britain before arriving in Sierra Leone on December 20 and began working with patients on December 27 following further on-site training.
The Korean medical team is working at the Ebola Treatment Unit in Goderich, outside Sierra Leone's capital Freetown. The 100-bed facility ― built and funded by the British government and operated by EMERGENCY NGO, an Italian nongovernmental organisation ― includes a 24-bed Intensive Care Unit for the most severe cases. The facility is manned by a staff of 500.
It was reported that the hypodermic needle on a blood-filled syringe punctured three layers of protective gloves and scraped the medic's index finger when the delirious patient jolted while his blood was being drawn. The patient died the next day, indicating he was highly contagious at the time of the accident.
The government should conduct an investigation into how the health care worker came to injure himself and whether there was any breach in the protection protocol. The team in Sierra Leone must ensure that the protection protocols are strictly observed to ensure that they do not incur undue risks.
The current protection protocol requires health care workers to work in pairs when drawing blood from an Ebola patient ― one holding down the patient while the other draws blood. However, it has been noted that in some cases it may be difficult to strictly adhere to the protocol, especially when there is an overwhelming number of patients.
It is alarming that the potentially life-threatening incident occurred on the Korean team's fourth day of work at the Goderich treatment unit, a facility which handles the most dangerous Ebola cases.
The government should review whether the five-day training session in Britain and week of on-site training were sufficient to prepare the health care workers to operate in a very high-risk environment. It should note that many aid groups require health professionals to work under the close supervision of a mentor for several weeks before they are considered fully trained.
The current team in Sierra Leone will end its work there on January 24. The second team is to be dispatched on Jan. 10 followed by the third team on February 7. If necessary, the dispatch of the teams should be delayed to make sure they are thoroughly trained before working independently with Ebola patients.
Another concern is that the medic arrived in Berlin five days after being potentially exposed to the virus. Ways must be found to shorten the time it takes to admit a suspected patient for treatment.
Medical professionals are at great risk in the fight against Ebola.
Since the epidemic broke out in West Africa in March 2014, 670 medical workers have become infected, resulting in 380 deaths.
While we hope that the medic who volunteered to help Ebola victims in Africa will emerge from the ordeal in full health, the government should prepare for the possibility of the medic in Germany or others in the Korean medical team becoming infected with Ebola so that they receive the very best treatment in a timely manner.