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Faculty members discuss Ebola’s effects

Professors from life, social sciences discuss the virus’ reach in R.I. as well as in West Africa

Ebola and its epidemiological, political and cultural consequences took the stage during a multi-disciplinary panel of four Brown faculty members in Salomon 101 Thursday evening.

The discussion took place a day after the World Health Organization announced that the death toll in the current Ebola epidemic had reached 5,000.

The panel, which was moderated by Patricia Agupusi, a postdoctorate fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, touched on both international and local issues surrounding Ebola, including how Ebola is being handled in West Africa, how the WHO has responded to Ebola, how Ebola is tied to U.S. politics and how Rhode Island is taking measures to ensure an Ebola outbreak does not occur in the state.

Adam Levine, assistant professor of emergency medicine, Nitsan Chorev, professor of sociology and international relations, James Morone, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, and Nicole Alexander, assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine, all participated in the panel.

In August, Levine deployed to work at the first Ebola treatment facility in Liberia, just under five months after the first case in the country was detected in March. During the initial detection, many of the health care facilities in West Africa were not prepared to treat Ebola, which has many symptoms that are similar to the more common malaria. The start of the outbreak resulted in a scare during which many staff members at health care facilities fled their posts until there were “almost no operational health facilities in the whole country,” Levine said.

The spread of the disease was exacerbated by the weak health care system in Liberia, he said. “(Ebola) is not just a disease of individuals; it’s a disease of health care systems.”

Levine explained that an outbreak response structure was implemented to slow the spread, aiming to protect both staff members and patients. Though treatment facilities have been established, the operation costs reach about $1 million per month, and West Africa still needs more facilities than it currently has, he said.

The WHO and the international community as a whole took longer than desired to respond to the outbreaks, Chorev said. Budget cuts, priorities in funding and organizational fragmentation all prevented the WHO from responding as effectively as possible, she added.

The WHO “needs authority to stop relying on voluntary donations,” Chorev said.

The result was a “reflection of policies and changes that … undermined the capacity of WHO to deal with outbreaks like Ebola,” Chorev said. “We need to fix it and let it do its job.”

Though there have been only nine cases of Ebola and one death in the United States, Morone said the disease has affected American politics as well. Because of U.S. citizens’ great fear of contagion — he cited opinion polls showing that almost 50 percent of respondents were afraid of contracting the disease by mid-October — politicians were able to use Ebola as a factor in the November midterms, Morone said.

The “constant narrative that the government can’t do anything right didn’t allow the government to mobilize the necessary resources” to deal with Ebola, he added.

But Alexander said Rhode Island has taken steps to ensure Ebola will not become a problem locally.

“Public health management is the key” to preventing an outbreak, Alexander said. Rhode Island has looked to Nigeria — now Ebola-free after a small outbreak — as an example of how to deal with the disease. Nigeria had only 20 cases of Ebola, with eight deaths, before eradicating the disease. Communication between government and health organizations was the primary factor in Nigeria’s effectiveness, Alexander said.

The state government recently approved a plan drawn up by the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and hospitals around the state for procedures to prevent an Ebola outbreak, Alexander said.

“I have colleagues who have given blood, sweat and tears to make sure hospitals are prepared,” she added.

The local West African community in Providence has played a role in raising awareness as well, Alexander said. The community has organized rallies, vigils, relief funds and the “Ebola Be Gone” campaign with the goal of generating awareness.

The panel also touched on how health care workers were affected by societal fears of contracting the disease. Levine described how hospital staffers in West Africa faced prejudice from their communities for working to combat the disease, and Morone said in America there is widespread fear of contracting Ebola.

Tiana Acosto ’17 told The Herald afterward, “I didn’t realize there was a stigma surrounding the Ebola operation — how a lack of American interest played into that.”

Agupusi noted that Ebola is an international problem and said all communities — from the United States to the WHO to the governments in West Africa — have a responsibility to help stop the outbreak.

“Ebola has no ethnicity,” she said.


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