Lake Forest College adjunct professor Helen Bond usually takes some students along on her yearly trips to Guinea, where they study west African drumming, and she works to help children and provide clean water through Motherland Rhythm Community.
She's gone every year for the past 14 years. But with the recent spread of the deadly Ebola virus in that part of western Africa, this year's December trip may be in jeopardy.
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"We're just closely monitoring the situation," said Bond, a Grayslake resident who's been in regular contact with her Guinean friends, none of whom know of anyone who has contracted the virus. "Our plan, right now, is to continue the work."
Guinea is where the outbreak began last December. More than 1,100 deaths have been counted across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, but the World Health Organization reports there is evidence those numbers "vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak."
People across the suburbs are keeping a close eye on the situation, from those like Bond who have close ties to west Africa, to suburban hospital workers who so far are considering the outbreak half a world away as an exercise in preparedness.
The disease has not been reported in the U.S. (though a few patients have been flown to East Coast hospitals for treatment), but the potential danger it poses has prompted suburban hospitals to take note.
"As with any infectious disease, it's just a plane ride away," said Georgene Fabsits, the EMS/emergency preparedness coordinator at Alexian Brothers Health System, based in Arlington Heights.
"Awareness is half the battle. Being aware, and being able to identify it early so you can get the patient in isolation ... that's the key."
Suburban hospitals have stepped up their awareness efforts in recent weeks, regularly updating their staff through meetings and memos with the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Hospital officials stress that it is extremely unlikely that the Ebola virus would appear in the suburbs, and if it did, anyone staying in the hospital would not be in danger, as the disease can only be transmitted through direct contact with the body fluid of an infected person.
"There's basically zero risk of contracting this disease in the general population," said Dr. Robert Citronberg, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital's director of the Division of Infectious Diseases. "We are very aware of the potential risks and hazards ... and we're absolutely equipped and prepared."
To be extra vigilant, hospitals are instructing their staffs to ask more questions of patients who suffer Ebola-like symptoms like high fever, such as, "Have you or anyone you know traveled abroad recently?"
They've also inventoried their protective equipment in their isolation rooms -- rooms they use for a wide range of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis -- so there are masks, gloves, face shields and properly functioning negative air pressure systems.
Suburban hospitals took similar actions a few months ago, when the MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) virus was spreading, officials said.
Traveling amid the extreme poverty in west Africa has always come with health risks, which is why so many immunizations are required for travel there. But local churches and charities who regularly send people to Africa say the risks are worth it. Bond's nonprofit has built a school, a youth center, dug wells and provided water filters to help countless families have clean water.
"We're going to continue doing what we're doing ... because you wouldn't want to abandon them in their time of need," Bond said. "I'm grateful the international community is involved, because they need as much help as they can get."