As The Epidemic Worsens, A UNC Doctor Details The Battle Against Ebola

In the three and a half weeks Dr. William Fischer spent in Gueckedou, Guinea, he encountered between thirty and fifty patients suffering from Ebola. Only seven survived.

“It’s hard. It’s really hard work. It’s really intense work,” says Fischer. “But I’m totally sold on this idea that we can improve mortality with even just basic mechanisms right now.”

Fischer is a pulmonary and critical care physician at UNC Hospitals. He traveled to Guinea in May with the World Health Organization to help battle the latest outbreak of Ebola.

The current outbreak is the largest and deadliest on record. More than 1,200 have been infected and at least 670 have died in the past four months.

Unlike past outbreaks, which were located in remote regions in Central Africa, this began in West Africa, starting in Guinea before spreading to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

“It’s so easy for infection and infected patients to cross international borders, but it’s much more difficult for resources to follow that path,” says Fischer. “Increasingly we’re becoming a much more interconnected world. People are much more mobile. This is a very nice reminder of that interconnectedness, as this population is incredibly mobile and that mobility is sustaining this epidemic.”

The Ebola virus produces a hemorrhagic fever that is spread by contact with bodily fluids. The mortality rate among those infected can reach as high as 90 percent. There’s currently no cure, no vaccine, and no specific treatment, but Fischer says aggressive rehydration can help victims fight off the virus.

“I initially was skeptical about what care we could provide, but in fact, what I saw was that we can have a dramatic effect on reducing Ebola-related mortality with aggressive critical care.”

Yet Fischer said in his three weeks treating patients only a handful recovered, and when they did, the doctors were often happier than the survivors.

“One of the most difficult things about Ebola is that it doesn’t just kill people- it wipes out their families,” says Fischer. “This gentleman we were able to get through, but he lost his mother-in-law, his mother, and his wife and their unborn child. So you can imagine the despair that permeated every inch of that room when he heard that his wife had passed shortly after delivering their child.”

One of the biggest challenges facing doctors battling this current outbreak is convincing communities and individuals to seek medical treatment at the first sign of infection.

Western medical resources flood into the region only when an outbreak occurs, forming an association between doctors and death that’s hard for residents in the affected areas to ignore.

“They don’t understand that their best chance for survival is to come to a treatment facility early and that their best chance at preventing transmission to their loved ones is to go to the treatment facility,” says Fischer. “There’s an incredible amount of distrust between the people and the healthcare providers because they see their loved ones go to these facilities and then 90 percent of them return in a body bag. Facing those statistics, I’d be skeptical of those treatment facilities.”

Fischer says medical personnel need to reach out to community leaders to help stem the spread of the virus and build trust.

“This is a challenge. This is a major, major challenge. But it’s also an opportunity. If we can empower local community leaders to spread the word about the benefits of presenting early to a treatment facility- the benefits being it increases your chance of survival and decreases the chance of transmission- then we can have patients present earlier. If we can reduce that mortality we’re going to improve the trust between the community and the healthcare providers.”

This latest outbreak began in March and continues unabated. Fischer notes that with a twenty-one day incubation period and an increasingly mobile populace, this disease is poised to spread.

“I don’t see this ending any time soon, unfortunately. I do think that we are going to have to dedicate and we should dedicate a tremendous amount of resources, both from a material perspective as well as from a human infrastructure perspective in order to stop this outbreak before it gets even worse.”

Just last week a seemingly healthy man boarded an airplane in Liberia, only to arrive in Lagos, Nigeria with symptoms of Ebola. He later died. Officials are still trying to track other passengers on that plane.

The disease takes a toll on healthcare workers too, as they are often in contact with the bodily fluids that spread Ebola. Top doctors in Liberia and Sierra Leone have succumbed to the disease, and two Americans, a doctor and an aid worker, are currently in quarantine suffering symptoms. This has prompted two North Carolina-based charities to call for an evacuation of all non-essential staff from Liberia.

Nonetheless, Fischer says he is eager to return to the region.

“I’d like to go back. I think, for me, leaving was just as difficult as going. It was the thought that I was leaving in the midst of the epidemic as opposed to the end of the epidemic. I feel a strong draw to go back. My hope would be that I could, through aggressive critical support, reduce the mortality and then improve community trust.”

You can read Dr Fischer’s dispatches from Guinea here.

CHPD: ‘No Foul Play Suspected In Student’s Death’

A coroner’s report will have to explain the cause of death of a UNC student who died Thursday afternoon, but the Chapel Hill Police Department says it does not suspect foul play.

“The investigation is ongoing, however, there is nothing to indicate to the initial investigators that there was any foul play or anything suspicious,” says Public Information Lieutenant Josh Mecimore.

He says Police arrived at around 4:41 p.m. to the residence at 500 Pittsboro Street, which is where Pittsboro Street and Manning Drive split across the street from the UNC School of Public Health.

The house is listed on Trulia and Zillow as a large single-family dwelling.

Harris Granger Pharr (Courtesy of Facebook)

Harris Granger Pharr (Courtesy of Facebook)

Lt. Mecimore says, when police arrived, the body of 21-year-old Harris Pharr, a biomedical engineering major, was inside the residence.

“There were no outward signs of foul play,” Lt. Mecimore says.

A lot of focus has been put on the fact that this is the second member of the Alpha-Alpha chapter of the Chi Phi fraternity who has died since October 2012.

David Shannon was a pledge with the fraternity when he died in Carrboro. He fell 40 feet at the Ready Mixed Concrete facility, and the autopsy found him to have a blood-alcohol concentration level of .22.

The question of foul play and hazing was raised, and the Carrboro police did an initial investigation. Captain Chris Atack says, at this point, the investigation into the death of Shannon is inactive. He says if the department gets any leads that would require further investigation, it would look into them. However, the case is not officially closed.

Motorcycle Accident Kills 26-Year-Old Driver Saturday Morning

The Chapel Hill Police Department reports that a motorcycle accident at 6:35 a.m. Saturday resulted in the death of the vehicle’s 26-year-old driver.

Sergio Acero was driving on Estes Drive Extension when his motorcycle crashed near Seawell School Road. He was transported to UNC Hospitals were he later died.

The CHPD is investigating the cause of the accident.

Four New Flu Deaths In NC Last Week, Three Additional Found

Four people died from the flu last week and three additional flu deaths from previous weeks have been discovered, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

At the last report, 74 people had been killed by the flu in North Carolina this flu season. The total is now up to 81, which is 22 more than last season’s total of 59.

Four deaths is the lowest reported total since the first full week in January showing a continued downward trend since the peak of 12 in late January. This time period also marked just the second week since January 12 that a pediatric death has not been reported.

To see more statistics of flu-reported deaths in North Carolina, click here.

Close Contacts Of ECH Student Who Died Being Monitored

The Orange County Health Department worked closely with East Chapel Hill High School and the school district shortly after finding out a 14-year-old student at East contracted meningococcal disease and later died.

“We have given prophylactic antibiotics to 14 contacts at this point,” said Orange County Health Department Director Colleen Bridger as she addressed the media Thursday morning. “Typically it’s going to be close family members that are the most exposed.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella joined Dr. Bridger and said the student left school Tuesday after telling the school nurse he felt ill.

“The nurse advised the family to seek medical attention,” Dr. Frocella said. “He thought maybe he just wasn’t feeling well. The nurse contacted the parents and advised them to seek medical attention, and the family did go see either their doctor or a clinic.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of meningococcal disease include nausea, vomiting, photophobia (increased sensitivity to light), and an altered mental status (confusion). It is spread through the transmission of respiratory and throat secretions like saliva.

“Meningococcal disease is a generic term that encompasses the different types of illnesses that you can get if you are infected with the bacteria,” Dr. Bridger said. “You’re most commonly, probably, familiar with meningitis, which is when the bacteria gets into the spinal fluid and the brain of the infected individual; that would be meningitis. We believe we are dealing with a blood infection in this particular case, which is why we’ll be referring to it a little bit more generically.”

Dr. Bridger said it’s impossible to trace where the student picked up the bacteria.

She said the disease is most commonly seen in adolescents.

“I think 10-15 percent of people who are infected with a meningococcal disease will die,” Dr. Bridger says. “Another up to 50-percent will suffer life-long consequences of the disease if they do recover. So it’s a very, very serious disease. The good news is it’s very, very hard to get.”

Anyone experiencing symptoms should contact the Orange County Health Department or your personal physician immediately.

For more information about how East Chapel Hill is handling the situation at the school, click here.

14-Year-Old East Chapel Hill Student Dies Wednesday

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spokesperson Jeff Nash says a 14-year-old male student of East Chapel Hill High School died Wednesday, presumably from meningococcal disease.

Nash says at this time it has not been confirmed whether or not he had meningitis at the time of his death. He says the school worked closely with the Orange County Health Department to make sure other students are safe.

East Chapel Hill principal Eileen Tully sent a message to parents informing them of the situation. She shared a letter from health director Colleen Bridger, which included more information about the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of meningococcal disease include nausea, vomiting, photophobia (increased sensitivity to light), and an altered mental status (confusion). The disease is spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions like saliva. Anyone experiencing symptoms should contact the Orange County Health Department or your personal physician immediately.

Principal Tully plans to meet with students in the morning, according to Nash, and counselors will be available for students.

The health department worked to find a list of close friends of the student and called their families Wednesday night.

UNC Urging Students To Get Flu Shot

CHAPEL HILL – The H1N1 flu has caused an increase in flu-related deaths in North Carolina this year with only two of the 21 deceased older than 65, and UNC is reaching out to its students to urge preventative care.

Campus Health Services executive director Dr. Mary Covington says this is the same strand of flu that caused what was know as the swine flu epidemic in 2009.

“It seems that the younger folks maybe don’t have as much immunity to this virus, and so it’s particularly important that young and middle-aged people get vaccinated,” Dr. Covington says.

Campus Health Services flu shots are only open to students at the University. The clinic is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday during the academic year.

However, Dr. Covington says now in the heart of flu season there are additional clinics open to all members of campus.

“We’re actually running six additional clinics in convenient locations on campus so that any faculty, staff, or student could go there and get a flu shot,” Dr. Covington says.

She says getting your flu shot is the most important preventative step during any flu season.

“That’s one of the most important preventative measures, and the other one is to wash your hands and practice good hand hygene,” Dr. Covington says.

UNC Campus Health Services is located in the James A. Taylor Building which sits between Kenan Football Stadium and UNC Hospitals.

For contact information, click here.

UNC BoG Recognizes Former Governor Holshouser

CHAPEL HILL – The UNC BOG recognized our former Governor James Holshouser and honored his life with an award in his name. UNC System President Tom Ross says Holshouser was a great leader and influenced many.

“This University and our entire state lost a consummate public servant, a source of infinite wisdom and a true statesman, this summer with the passing of Jim Holshouser” Ross stated.

Holshouser served as Governor of North Carolina from 1973 to 1977.  He also served on the Board of Governors for the UNC system for more than 30 years where many members have said they valued his thoughts and practices.

“I always told people that Governor Holshouser should have been named Mr. E.F. Hutton, because when he spoke truly everyone listened” Ross said “in word and indeed he personified the true meaning of statesmanship and servant leadership, and our university had no greater friend or stronger ally.”

To honor Holshouser the BOG voted to change the name of their public service award to the Governor Holshouser award for excellence in public service.  This award was originally created in 2007 to encourage, identify, recognize, and reward public service by faculty of the University. Holshouser exemplified many of the characteristics that this award represents.  BOG member Peter Hans says words do not describe the loss of Holshouser.

“President mentioned in his remarks, we lost a giant in June, and a man who epitomizes public service” Hans commented.

The board also recognized another BOG member that recently passed, Julius Chambers.  Chambers was a civil rights attorney for many years along with Chancellor of North Carolina Central University.

For more information on James Holshouser click here.

In Memory of My Friend’s Mother

How to Help Your Child, At Any Age, Comfort Someone?

Yesterday I picked some Queen Anne’s Laces alongside the road for a friend whose dying mother believes her bed sheets are made of lace. “They are so soft, so beautiful,” she told my friend who in turn told me this story. As common, noxious and pesky as these wild flowers may be, they are as exquisitely beautiful as lace — and the gift, my friend said, “They will forever, forever be my mom’s flower.”

When someone is dying or has passed away, it seems to me it’s hard to know what to say or do. It’s even harder to show our children what to do. Some of us avoid saying anything. Or we stumble on the wrong phases, “Hey, it was his time. Move on.” It doesn’t take much to help your children learn to comfort a friend or a family member. Here are seven suggestions to consider:

1. Say I am sorry;
2. Give a hug;
3. Share why you liked the person who passed away;
4. Ask how was their last few moments with this person;
5. Recall a memory of that person;
6. Offer to help; and/or
7. Give something. Encourage your child to cook a meal or make a card. Listen carefully. You might find an opportunity to give something that holds meaning.