The Ebola Crisis: What It Means for West Africa and the World

by |October 23, 2014
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Image: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

How to stop Ebola? What are the implications of how this outbreak is being handled? What are the lessons for journalists covering the outbreak? And what about the next epidemic?

A panel of experts will speak about the crisis at Columbia University on Monday, Oct. 27, in a special conference organized by The National Center for Disaster Preparedness in collaboration with The Earth Institute. “The Ebola Crisis: What it Means for Africa and the World” will run from 1-5 p.m. at Faculty House, 64 Morningside Drive.

You can register for the event here, or watch the live webcast on Monday.

“The Ebola epidemic in West Africa should be viewed akin to a world war whose outcome … matters crucially for all of us,” said Dr. Ranu Dhillon, senior health advisor for The Earth Institute and adjunct assistant professor at the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia, who will participate Monday. “We do not have a choice. Moreover, we need all hands on deck—whatever skills someone has can surely play a role in augmenting the response, whether that’s medical personnel, people with skills in advertising and messaging, logistics, etc. All should be brought to bear on ending this epidemic.”

Dhillon is advising the president’s office in Guinea on how best to respond to Ebola there, one of the three countries most affected. “I hope [the conference] galvanizes an understanding of just how important this situation is, as well as informs discussions based on actual science, evidence and experience of what is happening, rather than fear-mongering, sensationalism and armchair speculations,” he said.

Public health specialist Anne Liu, another conference speaker, said she hopes Monday’s session will “help participants get a better sense of what’s going on and what the international community is working on in combatting Ebola.” Liu works with The Earth Institute’s Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development on strengthening primary health care in the Millennium Villages, developing the network of community health care workers and local clinics. Her team is setting up mobile information systems to help keep track of Ebola cases and trace people who have had contact with people diagnosed with Ebola. (More on Earth Institute work in Guinea here).

Cases of Ebola—nearly 70 percent of them fatal—continue to grow by the hundreds every day in three West African countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control counted 5,744 cases and more than 4,500 deaths as of Oct. 22—an acknowledged undercount because of the difficulty of tracing all cases. The CDC’s worst-case estimate is that there could be as many as 1.4 million cases by February unless those countries can put into place drastic improvements in control measures.

A patient attempts to rehydrate himself under the watchful eye of a nurse. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Cosmos for Médecins Sans Frontières

A patient attempts to rehydrate himself under the watchful eye of a nurse. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Cosmos for Médecins Sans Frontières

In the United States, despite assurances from public health officials, health agencies and hospitals are scrambling to catch up with new protocols and procedures for addressing Ebola. Transportation authorities have begun screening passengers from those three countries at five airports, including JFK in New York, Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare and Atlanta international airports. The CDC notes that all outbound passengers are screened for Ebola symptoms in the affected countries.

Just three cases have been diagnosed in the United States; five other people who contracted the disease in West Africa have been or are being treated here. A number of people have been placed in quarantine as a precaution after arriving in the U.S. from affected countries, including several in Connecticut. Meanwhile, public reaction to Ebola has occasionally swerved into a panic based on lack of knowledge about the medical issues, risk assessment and geography. One Texas college has refused to admit students from anywhere in Africa. A North Carolina assistant principal who traveled to South Africa on a mission trip has been told to spend 21 days at home after she returns—even though South Africa is 3,000 miles away from where the outbreak is occurring.

But also behind the public’s concern is a sense that public health authorities were slow to respond to the outbreak in West Africa and then caught off-guard by the Dallas cases. The response to Ebola has been hurt by lack of coordination and interagency fighting, Liu said. “Just because people say things are happening or renowned organizations are involved, you can’t assume things are taken care of sufficiently,” Dhillon said.

Liu said there is “too much fear and panic globally that isn’t well-informed.” She hopes conference participants will discuss how to tamp down that fear here and abroad. Travel bans, she believes, are a bad idea: “There needs to be global contribution, not isolation of the affected countries.”

“I think U.S. hospitals are able to deal with Ebola,” Dhillon said. “We have the means and ability to apply really stringent infection control measures, and I think we will manage to do that and/or safely get patients to special centers experienced with this.”

He adds: “The world still does not value all people the same—[the] poor suffer inhumane realities for an issue that we have all the know-how to control. … Ebola is not an untamable menace. The most important way we can resolve the concerns in the U.S. is taking it on fully in West Africa.”

Monday’s conference will bring together experts and stakeholders to talk about how best to curb the epidemic, understand its impacts—particularly in terms of bioethical and sustainability implications—and mitigate future high-fatality events. Other speakers will include:

  • Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News chief medical editor; former acting director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Dr. Robert Kanter, adjunct senior research scientist; professor of pediatrics, pediatric critical care medicine, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine
  • Dr. Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry; director, Masters of Bioethics Program; and director, Ethics, Policy and Human Rights Core, HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, Columbia University
  • Stephen Morse, director, Infectious Disease Epidemiology Certificate program, and professor of epidemiology, Columbia University Medical Center
  • Dr. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and former medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hosts for the conference are Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of The Earth Institute, and Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

For more information regarding the event, visit the conference web page or contact Tamara Plummer by emailing to tcp2114@columbia.edu. For live Tweets, follow #ebolacrisis14 or follow the center on Twitter: @columbia_ncdp.

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Further watching & reading:

For more information and updates on Ebola, go to the main CDC page on Ebola.

Ebola in Perspective: a special page on the National Center on Disaster Preparedness website.

“The Ebola Wars” in the current issue of The New Yorker is a heart-breaking look at doctors and nurses on the front lines in Sierra Leone, and at the scientists racing to understand the virus’s genetic code and find a way to stop it, written by Richard Preston, author of “The Hot Zone,” about the origin of the Ebola virus.

In the news:

Jeffrey Sachs talks on camera to Bloomberg News about the politics swirling around the Ebola crisis, and what needs to be done.

Irwin Redlener joins a thoughtful conversation on “On Point,” the NPR radio talk show from Boston-based WBUR.

Irwin Redlener talks about the mistakes made and lessons learned for the future in an op-ed piece on the CNN website.

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