The Ebola Diary: Wednesday, Oct 8 2014, Madrid

It’s Groundhog Day. The clock radio jolts me out of sleep with the word ebola all over again. Where are Sonny and Cher when you need them?

The only news-news this morning is that a nurse has now been put into isolation, bringing the number up to five. That’s one confirmed case and four poor souls in limbo, waiting, along with their medics and the rest of the country for the potentially damning Yea or grace-granting Nay.

I get the feeling the story in the media has moved into a new phase. The airwaves and newspapers are still chock-a-block with ebola, but in the absence of new developments beyond the isolation of the nurse, the focus is on analysis.

The blame game continues apace, with health minister, Ana Mato, mahogany of complexion and wooden in delivery, every bit as storm-lashed as the figurehead on the prow of an old clipper: the emergency protocols are flawed; the ebola team wasn’t trained properly; their biohazard suits and other equipment wasn’t up to scratch. What is an indisputable fact is that the ebola team at the Carlos III Hospital was dismantled six months ago, with cutbacks cited as the reason. The team was reconstituted for the bringing home of missionary, Br Pajares, back in August. The question Ms Mato needs to answer is which of these decisions was the worst?

Two ugly sides to the crisis make themselves known: the forensic armchair analysis of what the infected nurse’s aid (Teresa Romero Ramos; her name is now in the public domain) might have done wrong in order to have contracted ebola; chaotic and unedifying scenes at Ms Romero Ramos’s apartment complex, which, as well as her mother’s home, has become the focus of a media siege.

It is hard to escape media speculation on how Ms Romero Ramos became infected. Was it changing the patient’s nappy? Was it during the carrying out of post-mortem procedures on the cadaver? A leaky biohazard suit? Didn’t she have her gloves on properly? And then we swing back round to talk of protocols — the Protocol. Is the Spanish ebola protocol inferior to that of Germany and if it is how does that reflect on national character? Should the treatment of the pair of missionaries brought home from Africa have been carried out in a Class IV isolation unit (like in Germany)  instead of the Carlos III Hospital’s rickety old Class III-point-five?

Ms Romero Ramos’s neighbours are frightened and angry. They want their apartment block fumigated. Wasn’t the woman on the loose for ten days shedding virus on the door handles and stairwells? Yesterday, they vented their fear and indignation to dozens of journalists. The neighbours have a right to be angry and it does point to an incredibly fragmented and haphazard government response that a building in which a known ebola victim had been living for ten days has just been left as is, in a possibly lethal state for other residents. The neighbours say they have called various state agencies but no one seems to know whose job it is to take charge of the decontamination process. Action plan my hat, Minister Mato!

And then there is the matter of the nurse’s aid’s dog, Excalibur. The authorities want it destroyed, the neighbours want it destroyed, the whole country wants it destroyed. Except Ms Romero Ramos’s partner, whose video to that effect has featured heavily on news bulletins. In a bizarre and surreal twist, a group (20-30 people) of animal rights activists  turned up at the apartment block demanding the dog’s salvation and the country was treated to scenes of a candlelight vigil on behalf of a canine. Which was not exactly what we need right now.

In a country full of experts on ebola (I now include myself in this category) no one is sure if a dog can act as a carrier for the virus. To err on the side of caution and remove the hazard represented by the animal would seem the wisest course. They shouldn’t destroy it though; it should be quarantined and and a barrage of tests should be carried out on it including one for carrier status. If it does test positive we could have a right old problem on our hands. How many other dogs has Excalibur associated with over the last week? How many kids has he licked? What parks has he roamed in? Where has he done his business? A positive Excalibur could prove a nightmare for the peace of mind of Ms Romero Ramos’s Alcorcón neighbours.

Towards lunchtime more news emerges: another nurse has been placed in isolation. She is displaying one of the early (though confoundingly non-specific) symptoms of ebola — fever. Excalibur has been destroyed in situ in his owners’ apartment and the body removed in, of all things, an ambulance. A large body of police is present to control the animal rights activists. There are disgraceful scuffles. You feel like screaming at the TV that Excalibur was just a fucking dog. What about his master and mistress (and the 3,500 victims to date in Africa )? Haven’t you eejits anything better to do? Ms Romero Ramos’s (and Excalibur’s) home and apartment block is being fumigated; better late than never. Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy appeals for calm and for people to let the experts do their jobs. I’m glad he said that because I was on the brink of losing it there . . .

On the good news front we hear that Ms Romero Ramos is doing well. The combination of an experimental antiviral treatment and infusions of antibody-containing serum from an ebola survivor are reported as having an effect.

By mid-afternoon Ms Romero Ramos has told El País over the phone that she may have touched her face with the gloves with which she handled Dr García Viejo. One wonders has she been pressurized into making this call and delivering what amounts to a mea culpa. Nurse’s aid = incompetent baddie. Spanish Ministry of Health Ebola Protocol = brilliant and infallible. The piece, which describes her voice as “tired”, leaves one with more questions than it answers. Ms Romero Ramos reveals that nobody among the team caring for her specifically told her she was ebola-positive and that she only found out by reading El País on line using her phone. WTF? The nurse’s aid never told her GP when she initially presented with fever that she had been in contact with ebola and when she was taken to hospital she was attended to by nurses in normal garb. And I thought I’d have to wait two years for the appearance of new episodes of Twin Peaks in order to satisfy my sybarite’s nose for mind-bending weirdness.

There’s so much in the above to cause alarm, between a slobbering dog in a suburban park, an ebola-positive woman at large for a number of days (there have been reports that she visited a beauty parlor and had herself waxed — what influence does that have on the shedding of virus?), an unfumigated apartment block and medical personnel in non-protective clothing, that I feel like opening a good bottle of whiskey and an even better book of poetry and trying to forget about it all until it’s Groundhog Day once more.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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3 Responses to The Ebola Diary: Wednesday, Oct 8 2014, Madrid

  1. seajay23 says:

    Pressurized? What, she was inflated with a high pressure gas to force her make a statement?
    Pressured is shorter, accurate and doesn’t involve the risk of American spelling.
    I’m no grammar Nazi but there has to be some standards.
    Apart from that, great blog, I think that killing the dog would have put more lives at risk (blood spills, carcass disposal, I assume they shot the poor beast) than quarantining it.

  2. ucronin says:

    Hi Seajay23,
    Here’s what the OED says: pressurize [with object] Attempt to persuade or coerce (someone) into doing something: don’t let anyone pressurize you into snap decisions [with object and infinitive]: people had been pressurized to vote.
    I agree with you about the dog.

    • seajay23 says:

      You, Cronin, an Irish writer, are quoting from an English dictionary? I am appalled sir, appalled. Would Joyce or Beckett have used pressurized?
      Sargeant Pluck pressurised his bicycle tyres, de Selby pressurised his gasses, as a man of science myself I will pressurise vapours and leave the pressuring for another day.

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