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Clearing Dallas Nurse's Dog of Ebola May Strengthen Lawsuits against Spain

Clearing Dallas Nurse's Dog of Ebola May Strengthen Lawsuits against Spain

Bentley, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel belonging to Dallas nurse Nina Pham, has tested negative for Ebola. The dog will remain under quarantine for the full 21-day period customary for human beings, as Pham will reportedly be released from the hospital on Friday.

Pham, who treated Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, became the first person in the history of the nation to contract Ebola on U.S. soil. As part of the sanitation process used to clean her apartment, Bentley was taken away. For days, speculation centered on whether Bentley himself was carrying the virus and could potentially contaminate other human beings; dogs can carry the Ebola virus with no harm done to them, but the science is inconclusive on whether a human can contract the virus from an otherwise healthy dog.

Bentley is the second dog to amass some level of fame from his owner’s contracting of the Ebola virus, and his fate could very well impact the debate surrounding the fate of the first. In the grand scheme of the Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa and terrorizing the globe, with nearly 5,000 officially dead and an estimated 15,000 unaccounted for victims, the survival of one dog is at best a trivial matter. But in Spain, the execution of Excalibur, the beloved dog of that nation’s first Ebola victim, was a hotly contested matter that could wind up in court.

Teresa Romero, the first person to contract Ebola from a source outside of Africa, has survived the virus. She has tested negative twice for Ebola after a harrowing couple of weeks in which her family feared for her life. The Spanish auxiliary nurse, who treated a missionary with Ebola airlifted out of Sierra Leone, is reportedly doing “very well,” though doctors note to Spanish media that she has lost weight and will be “a little weak” for some time.

During Romero’s time at the hospital, Madrid residents rallied to save the couple’s dog, Excalibur. The 12-year-old dog became the subject of a hashtag campaign on Twitter to save him. The campaign involved pictures of fellow dogs with signs saying “Save Excalibur.” Nearly 100 people rallied in front of Romero and her husband, Javier Limón’s, apartment to protest the arrival of animal control experts to remove the dog and put him to sleep.

Limón, who remains in quarantine, has worked to control the family’s public message by writing statements and recording video messages. He thanked all for supporting Excalibur and urged the government of Spain not to put him down, but in the aftermath, made clear he understood that Ebola is a much greater tragedy than the loss of one dog: “May every child who dies in Africa receive the same support as my dog,” he stated in a video message.

In those messages, Limón has begun to make increasingly clear that he and Romero intend to pursue legal action against the Spanish government. They have plenty to sue about, even without Excalibur coming into play. Limón alleges that the hospital gave Romero only half an hour before treating a patient to learn how to use complex Ebola protective gear. The doctor who first treated Romero told Spanish newspapers he only discovered he had treated an Ebola patient by watching the news and that throughout his interactions with her, his protective gear did not fit, and his sleeves were short, exposing skin. 

As if the blunders were not enough, Madrid’s health chief, Javier Rodríguez, made a number of disparaging remarks about Romero’s disease. “She could not have been that bad if she went to the hair salon,” Rodríguez said of Romero upon hearing that two hair stylists had been quarantined for having interacted with Romero. Rodríguez also joked that “you don’t have to have a Master’s” to know how to use Ebola protective gear–a comment widely interpreted as mockery of Romero’s intelligence. Rodríguez has since apologized.

There is no shortage of angles a lawyer could take in bringing Madrid’s entire health infrastructure to court on behalf of Romero and Limón. Limón has made clear that he fully intends to take legal action to “prove in court” the failure of the Spanish public health system to keep his wife safe. There will be many lawsuits globally regarding this Ebola outbreak–from nurses in West Africa who claim they have not been paid in a year to airline workers who feel insufficiently protected from potential incoming Ebola patients. It is safe to say, however, that the Romero case will be among the most high-profile.

While the story was already chock-full of legal nuances, the survival of Bentley, the American Ebola dog, indicates that Romero and Limón may have a chance to avenge Excalibur, as well. It will be a difficult case; the Spanish government made its decision based on the fact that the science of dogs and Ebola is widely inconclusive, and public safety trumped the rights of the dog. A jury could very well find this to be a reasonable decision to make, given the extraordinary dangers presented by the Ebola virus. But having American government officials make the opposite choice, only to find that their test subject never contracted Ebola, creates an alternate situation that is no longer just hypothetical: a real-life example of a “pro-life” approach to proper Ebola precautions. 

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