The International Institute hosted a roundtable Wednesday exploring the multifaceted impacts of the deadly Ebola virus that has led to the deaths of more than 4,500 people across several West African countries in recent months. The panelists discussed the causes and consequences of the epidemic from both a local and global perspective.
A. Oveta Fuller, associate professor of microbiology and immunology and associate director of the African Studies Center, delivered an introduction that touched on the nature of the virus, its usual symptoms and the need for better nutrition and health care infrastructure, not only in the countries affected by the Ebola virus outbreak, but also in countries worldwide.
“This Ebola outbreak is not the only time that we have to work together to coordinate health care and that we can’t wait to work until there are epidemics or crises like these,” she said. “We have to work in times when there are not, to have students prepared, people trained across disciplines and infrastructure prepared.”
The panelists, who also included Gesslar Murray, a geology instructor at the University of Liberia and Renee Gerring, a laboratory supervisor also at the University of Liberia, discussed the daily effects of the outbreak in Monrovia.
“Ebola consumes your body,” Gerring said. “It takes control over your life, your movements. People are constantly in fear. People become threats.”
Gerring said people in affected areas experience daily anxieties from the threats posed by simple interactions such as handshakes and hugs. An abnormal life cycle evolves as the community becomes paranoid, depression sets in and a lack of trust between people develops. In Liberia, where an increasing numbers of hospitals and schools are closing, a lack of awareness and overburdened public health systems have led to a spiral of negative consequences, as people have died of curable diseases such as the flu and complicated pregnancies.
Given the progression of the disease in West Africa, public health centers and hospitals have become stigmatized as a last resort for those infected with Ebola — many view admission to local hospitals essentially as a death sentence. The panelists said it is important not only to improve health care infrastructure but also to build trust among the public in affected regions so infected individuals can feel confident about their health care if admitted.
This discussion included Associate Anthropology Prof. Michael McGovern, a political anthropologist who has spent a large amount of time in West Africa. He said there is currently an abundance of preventive knowledge in the West African community and emphasized the need for leveraging this knowledge in conjunction with international public health knowledge to increase our understanding of the Ebola virus and minimize its outbreak.
Adam Lauring, assistant professor of internal medicine and an expert in infectious diseases and virology, said the Ebola virus has a high mutation rate, meaning that it can quickly evolve to take other forms. However, research suggests that as the virus mutates, it would likely become less virulent and potentially pose a lower risk.
Though some have expressed fears that the virus mutate to an airborne form, the panelists said that situation is not at all likely, noting viruses do not usually change their mode of transmission.
In the Human Development Index, which ranks countries and territories based on health, education and quality of life measures, Liberia — one of the nations most affected by the outbreak — falls under the “low human development” category and is placed 175th out of 187 countries.
Gesslar said the cities are over-congested and health care infrastructure is very much neglected. At times like these, people are far more likely to die from causes other than Ebola.
However, the panelists said there is currently an unwarranted stigma surrounding the disease, noting that Ebola is naturally occurring and can affect anyone who has contact with the virus, not just individuals in underdeveloped countries.
The panelists also discussed how Ebola can be contained. Preventive measures such as isolation of suspected patients can help stop its transmission. Fuller also said better nutrition, hygiene and awareness can lead to long-term health benefits.
In addition, public health professionals are working with religious leaders in Liberia to help establish safe burial practices that account for both religious traditions and worker safety, as Ebola becomes more contagious after an individual dies from the disease.
“My hope is that the Liberian government invest more in public health and empower health workers,” Gerring said.
The panelists concluded by discussing how the Ebola virus should encourage the United States to improve health care infrastructure and how it is the responsibility of everyone to educate themselves and spread awareness.
“When one country sneezes another country catches the cold,” Murray said.
Clarification: This article was updated to clarify the likelihood that the Ebola virus could become airborne. The panelists noted an airborne mutation is very highly unlikely.