It is a grey morning in Solna, northern Stockholm, and Dutch native Dr Marc Sprenger has a full day ahead. This is no surprise – he is the director of the European Centre for Disease and Control, which has spent months trying to keep one step ahead of the Ebola spread. The Local snagged him for a chat before he attended the centre's daily round table meeting.
So for anyone out of the loop – what exactly is going on with Ebola?
Ebola is a very severe viral infection transmitted via contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is really sick and suffering. You can become infected even if the person has passed away. Unfortunately, the majority of the people with Ebola will die – not just because it's a severe disease, but because there isn't adequate medical treatment in the West African countries affected.
As there's no specific drug to fight against Ebola, you need good and classic hospital treatment to survive. This is what you see in Europe, if someone is repatriated, they mostly survive. This isn't because of a wonder drug, this is just good treatment.
Dr Marc Sprenger in his Solna office. Photo: The Local
Ebola is barely out of the headlines. What do you think of the European media's response to the crisis – scaremongering or a public service?
That's not so easy to answer. The right information is really important, but it's difficult because there are reports on every patient that has fever saying that they "could be infected with Ebola".
In Europe, as of today, we have only had nine cases. Eight of these were from repatriated people, and only one was infected – the nurse in Madrid. Every morning we review what was in the news and discuss the suspected cases. There are maybe ten reported cases in Europe each day that we hear about and no one tests positive. It's largely an exaggeration.
But, media attention can also be good. In Holland, where I'm from, they report about how West Africa needs help and how people can help in fund-raising. The Swedish media has also been good at this.
So Europeans shouldn't be scared of a Hollywood-style disease outbreak?
In the movies, you'll just see airborne infections – and it's those kind of things that should scare you. Sars was airborne infection disease. This is not. There is no risk in Europe that this disease will spread. It could happen that some cases show up, but then we know what to do – isolation and good treatment. Ebola will not spread in Europe. Absolutely not.
You mentioned the nurse in Madrid who became infected but survived. How has Europe learned from this case?
Firstly, it's fantastic that Spain has repatriated people. As for the case itself, I haven't seen an official or unofficial report, but we know that the nurse was infected – that's a matter of fact. She was wearing protective equipment, but it's not just about wearing it, you have to be trained how to use it exactly. We learnt that we need to pay even more attention to training people how to use the equipment. That's why we developed a tutorial on the matter.
Experts at the daily round table meeting. Photo: The Local
How important is the ECDC – and Sweden – in helping fight the crisis?
The ECDC is supporting Africa by sending experts, but they are under the flag of the United Nations. We do a lot of work here advising governments what to do about travel and preparedness. We discuss diagnostics so labs are equipped to be able to confirm Ebola. We develop protocols about exit and entry screening. I should add that I am very happy that Stockholm's Arlanda airport isn't screening every passenger. It just doesn't make sense.
What are the most important things to consider going forward?
Europe needs to be prepared. We need to mobilize health care workers who are willing to work in West Africa. We need to guarantee that they can return to Europe, and that we can provide them with support without stigmatization. You know what happened in the States – they wanted to quarantine everyone returning from West Africa. That's no motivation for health workers.
We need to monitor them to ensure they are healthy, and if they develop fever then we need to take care of them and isolate them – and not a moment before. If we do that, there is no risk in Europe.
Healthcare workers spray disinfectant in Sierra Leone. Photo: TT
If you had to look into your crystal ball, what will happen next in Europe and West Africa?
I know there are several vaccines in the works, but these things take time. You can't just make a vaccine, fill vials, and start injecting people. You need to run tests, check for side effects, and much more. There were suggestions that there would be a vaccine by Christmas, but this won't be the case. I hope that we can have something before the summer.
I think that there will be still several new cases to come, but that the numbers will start to go down. The latest news has been positive, Liberia is getting more stable, for example, but I'm not that optimistic that it will disappear anytime soon.
My forecast for Europe is that we will see only a few sporadic cases and not a spread. I'm much more unsure about Africa.