Yale forum confronts need for help fighting Ebola in Africa

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) image of the Ebola virus
Randall Beach

Getting greater numbers of trained health workers to West Africa is the key to stopping the spread of the Ebola virus, according to experts who spoke Thursday at a Yale forum addressing the crisis.

The three panelists agreed that sending money and building health centers is not enough; it’s skilled health workers willing to risk their lives who can make the difference.

“It’s heartening to see such a turnout,” said Elizabeth H. Bradley, faculty director of the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute, as she surveyed a packed room of about 100 Yale students and other members of the Yale community.

The event, titled “Beyond the Headlines: Understanding the Ebola Epidemic and Crisis Relief Initiatives,” was held at Yale’s Linsly-Chittenden Hall.

During the afternoon session, some people were hearing a piece of good news amongst the concern about the epidemic: a graduate student from theYale School of Public Health who had traveled to Liberia and then showed symptoms of the virus had tested negative for Ebola at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

However, Bradley addressed the graduate student’s situation at the outset of the forum: “I know you all want to ask: ‘What is Yale doing? What is happening to the student at the hospital?’ But no one on this panel is qualified to answer those questions. We’re not clinicians taking care of that patient. No one on this panel is a spokesperson for the university’s policy on Ebola.”

Bradley, who moderated the event, first asked Kristina Talbert-Slagle, senior scientific officer at the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute, to give an overview of the virus and how it is transmitted.

Talbert-Slagle said Ebola originated in the animal population. “It is not clear how it jumped to humans. A 2-year-old boy in Guinea became infected in December 2013.”

She said that because of cultural burial practices in Africa, at the boy’s funeral many people came into contact with his body. By last March it had spread to Sierra Leone and then came to Liberia.

However, she said, “Ebola is not that transmissible. It is transmitted person-to-person by direct contact with bodily fluids.”

She noted, “It’s natural to feel afraid, with all the media furor about the U.S. cases.” She was alluding to two Dallas nurses who have come down with the virus after treating a man who had traveled in Liberia. That man died.

But Talbert-Slagle said Americans should realize it’s much more likely they will die from the flu than Ebola. “Get flu shots,” she advised. “Wash your hands. The real crisis is in West Africa. Worry less about yourself and worry instead about the people who are at great risk.”

She also noted that unlike in Africa, with its less sophisticated medical systems, anybody who contracts Ebola in this country will immediately be quarantined in a hospital and receive intensive treatment.

Christopher Lockyear, operations manager for Doctors Without Borders and a Yale World Fellow, spoke about his experience implementing the humanitarian response to the epidemic in Africa. He said that for relief workers and medical personnel, “It’s emotionally draining, given the high mortality rate.”

“This epidemic is unpredictable,” he said. “That’s our experience so far. We’re in uncharted waters. We see it level off in one area, then we see it spike again elsewhere. This outbreak is far from over.”

But he added, “None of this is rocket science. It’s not technically that difficult; if you have the resources, you can stop the epidemic. But you need more people.”

“Just sending money and building isolation centers is not enough,” Lockyear said. “This is the moment when the world as a whole needs to come together for the people of West Africa.”

“Solidarity, not money,” he concluded. “Solidarity over fear. People over money. It comes down to response.”

But Dr. Kristine Olson, who practices at Yale-New Haven Hospital, stood up in the audience and noted she has spent time in Sierra Leone and would be willing to go back there to help combat the virus. However, she asked, “Where is the political will? I’d be happy to go if I had the full support of the U.S. government, if I knew I had the infrastructure to keep me safe.”

She again asked, “Where is the political will? I’m flabbergasted that there isn’t a mobilization.”

Another Yale World Fellow, Susana Edjang, an economic, social and development affairs officer at the United Nations, said the U.N. has taken the rare stop of declaring Ebola an international public health emergency. She said the U.N. has decided to set up a mission to combat the virus.

Edjang said the current estimate is that 20,000 people will be infected with Ebola by December. More than 4,000 people have already died.

Call Randall Beach at 203-680-9345.

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