Middlemore Hospital is "totally ready" for an Ebola outbreak, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said yesterday after visiting the hospital's new infectious diseases biocontainment unit.
The minister was taken on a tour of the unit by the clinical head of the ward, who demonstrated safety procedures and features, even dressing up in a full-body safety suit, complete with an eye-mask and protective visor.
Clinical head of infectious diseases Stephen McBride said the hospital had spent the past three months, since international concern grew for Ebola, getting prepared in case an infected person turned up in New Zealand.
The Ebola unit had two rooms, able to host a maximum of four people in the ward, Dr McBride said, but added it would not be ideal to be stretched to full capacity.
"But you can imagine something like if there [were] a mother and a child who both had the disease, we could accommodate them both in the same room," he said.
The two quarantined rooms were marked as "red zones", where only specified staff could enter, decked out from head-to-toe in a protective outfit made of material rated at the very highest level for protection from bugs, Dr McBride said.
Inside the room, patients would be completely isolated, glazed windows allowing visiting doctors to observe patients without having to make contact and an intercom system so they could assist and direct staff from outside, he said.
"We are [also] trying to minimise the waste in and out, because all the waste going out of this unit is highly infectious - waste is a very important component of things we need to manage and we've got very robust procedures for this."
Part of these procedures included having an on-site laboratory in the room so that doctors could examine specimens without having to remove them from the area.
Some things, like blood specimens, would need to be taken to the microbiology laboratory to be tested but the unit was trying to do as much lab work as possible on site, he said.
To get from the "red zone" to the "green zone", hospital staff would transition through an "orange zone", removing their protective gear - goggles, visor and all - rolling the outfit in on itself to minimise any chance of contaminants touching them - and disposing of the garments immediately.
"[The garments] are peeled off like a banana," Dr McBride said.
The minister said while risk to New Zealand was low, it was important that hospitals were prepared for a potential case of Ebola.
"We cannot guarantee that we won't get a suspected case here.
"Middlemore Hospital is one of four major hospitals across New Zealand which are most likely to treat any suspected Ebola patients.
"Their new infectious diseases biocontainment unit is able to assess and manage patients with suspected highly infectious diseases."
The unit was designed to treat Ebola, but could be used in other situations if the need arose, he said.
"The unit's immediate function is to be ready to receive patients suspected of having Ebola - however, in the future it will be a valuable resource for dealing with infectious diseases that may be imported into New Zealand. Our health and border authorities are well prepared to detect and respond to any potential cases of Ebola - we are taking this very seriously," Dr Coleman said.
Sixty-six people have been screened by Customs since additional border checks were introduced in early August but none has required laboratory testing.
What to tell your kids about virus
How do you describe Ebola to your kids? Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles explains.
1. Ebola is a type of virus, which is a strange life form which can only make more copies of itself when it is inside the living cells of another organism.
2. The Ebola virus isn't normally found in people.
3. Instead in some countries (but not New Zealand) it lives inside animals like fruitbats, usually without making them sick.
4. People get infected with Ebola by having really close contact with bats that have the virus, or other animals, like monkeys, that have caught Ebola from bats.
5. When people are infected with Ebola they will usually feel very hot (we call this a fever) and sweaty, and may vomit and get diarrhoea.
6. This vomit and diarrhoea will be full of the Ebola virus, which can infect another person if it gets into that person's eyes, mouth or a cut or scrape on their skin.
7. Doctors and nurses who are looking after people with Ebola wear special clothes, gloves, face masks and boots to stop themselves from catching the virus.
8. People can't catch Ebola from the air or from someone who doesn't have any symptoms (like vomiting or diarrhoea).
9. Once inside the human body, the Ebola virus very quickly makes lots of copies of itself, spreading all over the body and stopping it from working properly.
10. Sadly, more than half of the people infected with Ebola will die as there aren't any drugs that doctors can give sick people to cure them.