The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
Staffers at the Biocontainment Patient Care Unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center received a round of applause at a homecoming tailgate party thrown by interim NU President Jim Linder.
The applause was deserved. The staffers successfully helped cure Dr. Rick Sacra of Ebola last month. Nebraskans ought to be proud of the work being done at the unit.
The unit has had a low profile since it was opened almost 10 years ago. In fact, before Sacra was successfully treated there last month, the unit previously had cared for only one patient, who turned out to have malaria and did not require quarantine.
But the unit has been ready and waiting to help quell the threat of diseases like Ebola, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and anthrax, as well as dealing with bioterrorism.
In fact, Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, called the Biocontainment Unit a “national treasure” when the unit was unveiled in 2005.
The risk that Ebola poses was spotlighted for Americans this week by the death of the first patient to be diagnosed with the disease in the United States.
As concern rises -- airline cabin cleaners went on strike Thursday in New York because of Ebola fears -- it’s important for Nebraskans to know that the unit is specifically designed to ensure that it does not become a health risk to the community or the medical personnel who volunteer to work there.
The unit, on the seventh floor of the Nebraska Medical Center, is essentially a series of independently constructed concrete boxes contained within a larger concrete box. The unit is sealed physically and environmentally from the rest of the hospital with a series of negative airflow systems, to guard against the escape of pathogens into the atmosphere.
The specially trained medical professionals who volunteer to work in the unit use personal protection suits and follow special protocols.
The unit is now caring for its second patient with Ebola. Photojournalist Ashoka Mukpo has been given the experimental oral antiviral tablet Brincidofovir, as well as a serum created with the blood of Ebola survivor Dr. Kent Brantly. Mukpo believes he may have contracted the disease in Liberia when he cleaned a car in which someone with Ebola had died.
More than 3,000 people have already died from the current outbreak, and the World Health Organization has warned that the toll will continue to rise.
But when caught early and treated properly, some victims can survive.
When Sacra was pronounced free of the Ebola virus and released from UNMC last month, he declared that he was now a lifelong Cornhusker. He pumped his fist and said, “Go Big Red!” That’s a tribute to the dedication of the UNMC staffers on the front line of the global fight against Ebola.