Tackling the spread of infectious disease is paramount for health care providers, medical researchers and public health workers alike. An infectious disease can range from a simple flu virus to a serious, blood-borne illness such as hepatitis C — and much of what we know about diseases can be attributed to the careful tracking of outbreaks.
In a transient city like Las Vegas, preventing the spread of infectious disease is an especially difficult task.
“We have travelers from across the globe, so we must be more vigilant and aware,” said Jeff Murawsky, MD, CMO at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center. “Our health department keeps all the hospitals and our community informed of what is happening around the world and at home.”
Awareness across health care networks is what allows providers to stay up-to-date about the spread of diseases and outbreaks.
How and why do outbreaks occur?
A disease outbreak occurs when there are more instances than expected of any given disease within a community or geographic region.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an outbreak also can occur when there is an emergence of a previously unknown disease, a single case of a communicable disease that has been long absent from the population, or a disease caused by an agent (a bacteria or virus) that has not been previously recognized in the area.
Infectious diseases tend to follow their own specific patterns: the flu is common and appears en masse during flu season, whereas HIV is less common and appears in patients with high-risk factors (such as sharing needles, unprotected sexual contact, etc.).
When a disease steps outside of its established pattern, it prompts further investigation to ensure public safety. Oftentimes, the instance rate needs to be continually monitored by health care professionals to properly evaluate the situation.
“In some cases, new diseases — when first recognized — are thought to be an outbreak,” Murawsky said. “In 2015, the rates of hepatitis C increased significantly and some believed it was an outbreak. However, because of updated testing guidelines, many new cases were diagnosed but the infections themselves were old.”
Some diseases are more prone to outbreaks than others. Diseases that are easily spread through the air via coughing/sneezing have a higher potential for an outbreak. Diseases that are uncommon and/or generally eradicated from the population are also more likely to cause an outbreak because the average person’s immune system has not been exposed to them and thus is less able to fight them.
How hospitals prepare for disease outbreaks
Hospitals take many precautions to help stop the spread of infectious diseases, as well as practice training exercises in the event a serious outbreak were to occur.
“All health care facilities take actions to minimize the risk depending on the disease,” Murawsky said. “This includes special gloves, masks, gowns, air filters, even entire ‘space suits’ to limit exposure. We also have special cleaning devices, procedures and processes for any equipment that can be reused between patients.”
Ongoing education and training refreshers are required for health care workers to help ensure proper protocol is followed. Preparedness extends beyond common disease outbreaks as well.
“While our hospital did not see any cases of Ebola, we did drills with mock patients to be sure we could handle it correctly if we needed to,” Murawsky said. “All hospitals do such drills and participate in community-wide practices that include not only health care workers and first responders, but business/educational institutions and our military partners. This is to ensure that if something serious does happen, Las Vegas is ready.”
The importance of disease reporting
Health care facilities report on diseases, which allows illnesses to be tracked, the public to be alerted and outbreaks to be addressed quickly.
“Reporting helps to establish patterns so our public health departments can tell hospitals what to look out for,” Murawsky said.
For instance, every year, the number of flu patients is reported to the Southern Nevada Health District and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These reports contribute to a better understanding of the influenza virus — allowing health care professionals to pinpoint specific symptoms, identify at-risk patients and better anticipate when the flu will occur/reoccur.
Reporting also aids researchers when developing new treatments and vaccines, including for diseases that have become resistant to treatment, such as antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
Best practices to avoid contracting infectious diseases
1. Wash your hands often and use hand-sanitizing stations in high-volume, public spaces
2. Be sure all your vaccinations and boosters are current
3. Get an annual flu vaccine
4. Stay alert for public health announcements and adhere to their safety guidelines