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While the threat of Ebola is nearly nonexistent for most Americans, the current outbreak is the largest the world has ever seen, by far. Four people have been diagnosed with Ebola stateside in the current outbreak, including Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan, who did not survive.
According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus kills about half of those infected. Assuming the patients in the U.S. survive, their next big crises may be figuring out how to pay their bills, which are likely to be astronomical. Of course, the exact total is anyone’s guess right now, but there are some rough estimates available.
Cost of care
Duncan stayed in the hospital for nine days, and early estimates are that his care cost the hospital $500,000, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price told the Los Angeles Times. Other expert estimates range from $8,000 to $24,000 per day, based on the cost of treating other similar viral infections. Like much of health care pricing, the true cost is unclear.
“I’d say that $8,000 per day figure is the bare minimum,” says NerdWallet health care pricing expert Andrew Fitch. Patients rarely pay bottom dollar for health care, however, and Ebola treatment is no exception.
“I think the true cost will be much closer to $24,000 to $25,000 per day,” Fitch says, but warns that it’s not as simple as a daily estimate. The length of a hospital stay, intensity of care, and billing differences between hospitals will also factor into total cost of care.
“The final cost for some of these patients could be in the millions,” Fitch says.
Why is it so expensive?
One thing to count on, says Fitch, is the high cost of quarantine, or keeping the patient isolated to avoid spreading the infection. “That can cost upwards of $15,000 per day alone,” he says.
Another big factor in treating Ebola is the cost of labor. Because there are so many precautions to take and workers involved, health care worker hours add up quickly. Estimates are that more than 50 people were involved with Duncan’s care, either directly or indirectly. Ebola patients are also kept in intensive care units, or ICUs, which are costly to operate.
Treating Ebola patients
So far, treatments specific to Ebola are experimental and not widely available. If an Ebola drug did exist widely, treatment time and costs would likely decrease, but health care workers can only provide support treatments to patients currently.
In the case of this viral infection, that means a lot of rehydration. “Patients with Ebola are losing a lot of fluids,” says Dr. Fisayo Ositelu, NerdWallet’s in-house M.D. “Especially in serious cases, they’re vomiting, having diarrhea, and severe gastrointestinal distress,” he explains.
When that happens, an electrolyte imbalance that threatens the patient’s life can occur. “An electrolyte imbalance can easily spiral out of control … the patient can go into hypovolemic shock and die,” Ositelu adds.
Prevention and eradication
The current Ebola epidemic began in West Africa, and continues in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Ositelu is a native of Nigeria, where his parents are medical professionals and run a hospital in Lagos. They knew Dr. Ameyo Stella Adedavoh, the doctor there who died of Ebola on August 19. She treated Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer, who brought Ebola to Nigeria from Liberia.
Unlike the countries where the number of infected people continues to climb, Nigeria was declared free of the virus on October 20. “Nigeria was very aggressive against Ebola,” Ositelu says. He added that the Nigerian government took precautions early on in hospitals and airports, and tracked every person who may have come in contact with the infected.
Precautions include fever and symptom monitoring, and presenting for care at the first sign of the disease. Because patients aren’t contagious until symptoms show up, there is no need to isolate potentially exposed people before that. Once the disease is detected, patients must be quarantined and their homes decontaminated as thoroughly as possible. In addition, anyone an infected person came into contact with must be monitored closely for weeks; the normal incubation period is 21 days.
The latest confirmed patient, a physician in New York who recently came back from Guinea, had been closely self-monitoring. As a result, he caught the infection early and was admitted to the hospital immediately – all of which increases his chances for survival.
Ebola virus photo via Shutterstock.