LEWISTON — When it comes to Ebola, misinformation can be as dangerous as the disease itself.

With that in mind, a panel of experts from the local medical community gathered Wednesday night to update residents on all things Ebola. The bottom line: In the Lewiston-Auburn area, the hospitals and ambulance service are as prepared as can be.

“Whether it will come to our community, we can’t predict,” Dr. Peter Tilney of Central Maine Medical Center said. “But we have to be ready for it.”

“There’s so much confusion about Ebola,” Tilney said. “So many rumors and inaccuracies. Knowledge is power.”

Christopher Bowe, doctor of emergency medicine at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, suggested knowledge and perspective. On a screen behind him, a few facts about Ebola victim Thomas Duncan appeared. Duncan died of the disease shortly after traveling to Texas from Africa. If some of the more hysterical news reports were to be believed, everybody who encountered Duncan would have fallen ill as well.

Not so, Bowe said.

“It’s really important to talk about who didn’t get Ebola after having contact with Mr. Duncan,” he said. Specifically, of the 85 people who helped treat Duncan, 83 did not get sick at all. Nor did any passengers on the two-hour flight carrying nurse Amber Vinson, one of two who were infected while treating Duncan.

“Ebola,” Bowe said, “is not easy to contract.”

The hourlong forum drew a variety of people to the Franco Center. Older couples came to learn how the Ebola scare might affect their families. A nursing instructor brought half-a-dozen students along to help enlighten them on things they might face in their careers.

“The more knowledge they have, the more prepared they will be,” nursing instructor Meredith Kendall said. “We need to base our decisions on science, not fear.”

After Duncan was diagnosed in October, unease spread to every corner of the globe. In the U.S., many wondered if hospitals were prepared for a potential epidemic involving a disease with no known cure.

In reaction, the local hospitals, along with United Ambulance Service, have developed protocols to deal with people who are possibly infected. Health care providers will work in teams when confronted with Ebola symptoms to limit the number of people potentially exposed.

“Having a team to work with the patient,” Nathan Yerxa, performance improvement coordinator at United Ambulance in Lewiston, said, “is going to lead to better outcomes for everyone involved.”

When a nurse or doctor puts on protective equipment, he or she will be watched by team members. Everything is scripted, Tilney said, from which protective boot is to be put on first and exactly how it is to be done.

“We have all the minutiae covered,” Tilney said.

For the average patient waiting for an ambulance or shuffling into the emergency room, there will be no change in the level of health care provided, the experts stressed. There may be some surface differences — emergency medical technicians may wear more protective garb while assessing a scene. Nurses and physicians might ask more pointed questions about the patient’s travel history.

No emergency rooms will be closed, the panel said, because anyone suspected of being exposed to Ebola will be treated in special areas of the hospital.

It was all very reassuring, yet those in the audience had questions. Micaela Baron, a nursing student from Livermore, wanted to know how these teams of health care providers will be assembled. Is it on a volunteer basis? Is it compulsory?

According to Bowe, the selection of team members won’t be a problem, because every health care provider at a given hospital — and at United — will be equipped with the training and gear to do their part.

“We’re training everyone,” Bowe said.

One man in the audience wondered whether patients will lie about their travel histories or about contact with potential Ebola sufferers. The Lewiston area in particular, he said, is very diverse, with a large immigrant population.

According to Bowe, local hospitals have seen opposite reactions among those in the community.

“Most of these people are very concerned about Ebola,” he said, “and will seek care quickly.”

One woman wanted to know the risk of health care providers bringing infection back to their families. Very minimal, the panel members agreed, in large part because of their training and the team approach to treatment.

The experts remained until there were no more questions. Then, after allaying fears about Ebola, they gave the audience something else to fret about.

“What’s really important to remember,” Tilney said, “is that last year there were more than 50,000 deaths from influenza.”

And with that in mind, flu shots were made available on the lower floor of the Franco Center, although few sought them.

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Is it flu or Ebola?

Influenza: The flu is a common contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. The flu is different from a cold. Flu can cause mild to severe illness, and complications can lead to death.

Ebola: A rare and deadly disease caused by infection with an Ebola virus.

How germs are spread

The flu is spread mainly by droplets made when people who have flu cough, sneeze or talk. Viruses can also spread on surfaces, but this is less common. People with flu can spread the virus before and during their illness.

Ebola can only be spread by direct contact with blood or bodily fluids from a person who is sick or who has died of Ebola or with objects like needles that have been in contact with the blood or body fluids of a person sick with Ebola. Ebola cannot be spread by air, water or food.

Who gets the flu? Who gets Ebola?

Anyone can get the flu. Some people, like very young children, older adults and people with some heath conditions, are at high risk of serious complications.

People most at risk of getting Ebola are health care providers taking care of Ebola patients, or friends and family who have had unprotected direct contact with blood or body fluids of a person sick with Ebola.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of flu usually develop within two days after exposure. Symptoms come on quickly and all at once. Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle or body aches, cough, sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose.

The signs and symptoms of Ebola can appear two to 21 days after exposure. The average time is eight to 10 days. Symptoms of Ebola develop over several days and become progressively more severe. People with Ebola cannot spread the virus until symptoms appear. Symptoms include fever, severe headache, muscle pain, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea developing after three to six days, weakness, which can be severe, stomach pain, and unexplained bleeding or bruising.

Source: cdc.gov/flu and cdc.gov/ebola

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