Missoula health workers to help with West Africa Ebola outbreak


MISSOULA, Mont. - The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised its emergency response to level 1 in West Africa for the Ebola outbreak. Level 1 is the highest level, and that means all hands on deck.

So far, the outbreak has killed at least 932 people.

NBC Montana learned two Montana health workers are headed to West Africa to help.

It's an outbreak that's gained international attention and for Dr. George Risi, an infectious disease specialist in Missoula, it was a situation he couldn't just stand by and watch.

"We'll try and add to help improve the way infection-control policies are implemented as well as, of course, in patient care," said Risi.

Risi got on the phone with the World Health Organization, asking how he could help out. Within days, he had an itinerary set for Sierra Leone, where he will work with patients for three weeks.

It's not the first time he's been overseas. He studied diseases like Hantavirus in Panama, but this time will be different, because he'll be working with sick patients first-hand.

"It would not be right for me to say that I am fully prepared, but I also feel that the people who are over there that are on the ground already are going to be able to train us in whatever way we need," said Risi.

He's not traveling alone. Kate Hurley, a clinical nurse manager at St. Patrick Hospital, is also making the trip. She has 25 years of experience.

"It's a dynamic situation and where we could be in two weeks from now is very different from where we are now, but I anticipate that there is going to be a huge need for some direct patient care," said Hurley.

For both, it's a health risk, but one they are prepared for. Risi and Hurley showed NBC Montana the protective supplies they're taking to Africa, like gloves, gowns and face shields.

"I'm hoping to learn quite a bit by actually interacting with infected patients and learning how the clinical presentation really is," said Risi.

Risi tells NBC Montana his interest and bringing back important knowledge about infectious diseases to Montana outweighs the risks in his mind.

Time will tell how many patients they will help. They'll leave on August 19 for their volunteer trip and return on September 8. Risi says that once they come back, they'll be put on fever watch based on recommendations by professionals.

This year's outbreak originated in March in Guinea. It has spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and now Nigeria. Nigeria's health minister just declared a health emergency because Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation.

So far, 60 health care workers died this year trying to stop and control the disease.