University News

Interdisciplinary panel critiques Ebola response

Underequipped hospitals, lack of countermeasures and poor responses speed spread of disease

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2014

“Staff, stuff and systems” are the keys to remedying the recent Ebola outbreak, said Sheena Wood ’13, a strategist for the nongovernmental organization Partners in Health, at a teach-in about the disease Thursday evening.

The roadblock to the remedy, she added, lies in the fact that most Ebola cases have been concentrated in Western Africa, which has very few of these three countermeasures to disease.

The panel, which consisted of  Wood, an anthropologist, a biostatistician, an epidemiologist and a government employee, aimed to “bring different disciplines to talk about the root of the epidemic,” Justine Maher ’15, a community co-coordinator of Partners in Health Engage, told The Herald.

About 100 people gathered in Wilson 102 to hear the panelists address social, political and medical issues surrounding the Ebola outbreak, primarily focusing on its origins and what can be done to slow its course.

Ebola — a severe and often fatal disease that spreads through contact with bodily fluids — originated in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and has seen several subsequent outbreaks, said Jaclyn Skidmore, disease epidemiologist for the Rhode Island Department of Health. But the current outbreak is the largest and deadliest in history, she added.

Much of the spread of the disease can be attributed to the broken governments and health care systems of several Western African countries, said Adia Benton, professor of anthropology. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, some of the most severely affected countries, have all experienced civil war relatively recently, and health care systems remain devastated from the conflicts.

Some hospitals lack basic supplies, such as gloves, she said, adding that many nurses and doctors fled these countries during the wars, leading to a current understaffing problem.

“These systems were not built to address this kind of outbreak,” Benton said.

The number of infected Ebola patients is growing at an exponential rate due to the poor care that has been taken in response to the outbreak, said Mark Lurie, professor of epidemiology. The infection rate will double every three weeks, he added, with on average, each infected person expected to infect an average of two other people.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates roughly 8,000 confirmed cases of Ebola, but the real count is likely two and a half times that amount, he said.

The infection estimates and fatality rates are often low because many people in West Africa are hesitant to go to a health clinic, Lurie said.

The population’s general reluctance to see doctors has hindered the treatment of the outbreak, Wood said, adding that some people are scared of becoming infected at a clinic while others mistrust health officials.

The epidemic is probably near its beginning, and the current infection rate will seem small six to nine months from now, Lurie said.

Governments and NGOs have not acted in the most effective way to combat the oncoming rise in infection, he added. For example, screening travelers at airports might be unnecessary because of the physical effects of the disease when it is contagious. If you are in an infectious state of Ebola, “you won’t be in any condition to get on an airplane,” he said.

“We’re in deep trouble here, and our institutions are not responding properly,” Lurie said.

After the panelists spoke, the floor opened up for audience questions. One student asked the panel what standard treatment protocols exist for the disease.

Skidmore responded that there is no standard protocol, and the patients that have been treated were given experimental treatments, if any.

“The Ebola epidemic is growing ever larger and coming to the U.S., and people don’t care too much,” Maher told The Herald. Poor media coverage has exacerbated this problem, which is why the panel is particularly important for enhancing students’ understanding of the disease, she added.

Partners in Health Engage, which organized the teach-in, will host a phone-a-thon Tuesday to raise funds to halt the spread of the disease, Maher said.