Online “course” about Ebola

Two outstanding journalists in the area of infectious disease, Helen Branswell of Canada Press and Martin Enserink with Science, have teamed up to create an online “course” on Ebola.  Although it was designed (with support from the U.S. Department of State) to help journalists preparing to cover Ebola, the website will give anyone a good introduction to basic facts about the disease. Another good source for information is the CDC Ebola website, for more in depth coverage.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

NPR’s “Life after Death.”

I know that people may be tired of hearing about Ebola, which is a painful topic. Still, I have to strongly recommend a new storyboard by NPR reporters called “Life after Death,” which describes one village’s experience with the outbreak. The storyboard combines audio interviews and stunning photographs to create an account that is moving, informative and beautiful. It illustrates the the human reaction to the outbreak, and the toll that the disease continues to take from the community after people stop dying. I think that this storyboard shows the potential of new media, which combine the content of text-based journalism, with the artistic expression of photo-journalism. One alert- if you are viewing this at work, you probably should put on your headphones before you click on the link above.

If you are interested in global health, you can find my book on the AIDS Pandemic in Latin America here.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Columbia Prediction of Infectious Diseases

Map of outbreaks of the Ebola virus in Africa by strain and confirmed contractions. Created by: Zach Orecchio, University of South Florida Geography Dep.
Map of outbreaks of the Ebola virus in Africa by strain and confirmed contractions.
Created by: Zach Orecchio, University of South Florida Geography Dep, Obtained from Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

One of the major questions that international agencies and governments have been wrestling with is the likely future of the Ebola epidemic in Africa. Perhaps the best website for these predictions is the Columbia Prediction of Infectious Diseases site. Unfortunately, despite the heroic efforts currently being made in West Africa, the curve towards mid-November shows a steady increase. Of course, there are success stories as well, as Nigeria has recently been declared Ebola-free. But this site indicates the scale of the challenge that world currently faces. The website is also useful for tracking yearly influenza epidemics.

At this date, a great deal rides on the outcome of Ebola vaccine trials. The Canadian government yesterday sent 800 vials of experimental vaccine to the WHO, for this organization to distribute as it sees best. The world is also increasing the supplies and manpower provided to West Africa. It is now clear that everyone underestimated the dangers of this outbreak, because Ebola had been controlled before. What has been different has been that this outbreak is taking place in an urban setting.

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Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Ebola and Air Travel

ID-100153388One of the most controversial questions during the current Ebola outbreak has been whether restricting air travel to West Africa is more of a help or a hindrance. There have been passionate arguments on both sides, and the question has become politicized. For a balanced look at the question, see this recent National Geographic article. I found some of the better comments on this piece to be nearly as enlightening as the article itself. The bottom line is that there are pros and cons to both policies, which need to be acknowledged by each side in the debate. …

Ebola: how the international community failed to respond in time

This morning we learned that sad news that Thomas Eric Duncan has died in Ebola in Texas. While much of the recent coverage of Ebola has focused on the United States, an outstanding piece in the Washington Post (Out of Control: How the World’s Health Organizations failed to stop the Ebola disaster) provides an excellent history of the Ebola outbreak. Through interviews with medical personnel in West Africa, it describes how it was that the international community failed to intervene until too late.

Prof. Smallman, International Studies, Portland State University.

What do we know about Ebola?

"Airline Route On World Map" by digitalart at freedigitalphotos.com
“Airline Route On World Map” by digitalart at freedigitalphotos.com

One of the questions now being raised is whether public health decisions are being based on sound science. At the center of this debate is the question of testing travelers from affected countries for fever, which some infectious disease researchers -and people in the countries themselves- argue is unlikely to be successful. But there is also the larger question of how much we know about the transmission of the virus. For a good discussion of these issues, see David William’s article in the “LA Times.” Williams interviewed C.J. Peters, a senior and respected figure in the field of infectious disease, who points out what we still don’t know about this virus.

Shawn Smallman

Ebola in the United States

"Anti Virus" by hyena reality at freedigitalphotos.net
“Anti Virus” by hyena reality at freedigitalphotos.net

With the arrival of Ebola in Texas, the media coverage of Ebola has increased dramatically. Reuters has a good video talking about the current situation with Ebola (click here). As the video discusses, people are starting to ask questions about mass transit and other technologies that bring people into contact. Could you transmit Ebola through the key pads for debit cards? Elevator buttons and handrails in public buildings. Cash? Is the United States so different that it could not have a significant Ebola outbreak? On the one hand, Ebola has been controlled in Nigeria through an effective health response. On the other hand, there are many things about Ebola that researchers are still learning, such as the implications of recent Canadian scholarship suggesting that Ebola can be spread by an airborne route in the lab. Ian MacKay (a key source for information on the outbreak) has a good blog post on the different meanings that “air-borne transmission” may have for a medical researcher as opposed to the lay person. The bottom line is that it may be possible in the lab, but is unlikely to be a major transmission route in the real world. But people have many questions, and there needs to be clearer information available. …

Ebola and “exponential growth”

WHO: Map of Ebola Cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as of 6 September 2014
WHO: Map of Ebola Cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as of 6 September 2014

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has not received the resources it merits, in part because other Ebola outbreaks proved relatively easy to contain. Those epidemics, however, tended to take place in a rural context, and Africa has changed profoundly since the 1970s. The urbanization and transportation networks that are remaking the region have also meant that it is far easier for diseases to spread. The current outbreak is expanding exponentially. The latest map on the Ebola outbreak by the World Health Organization makes clear the scale of the challenge that the global community now faces. When you look at this map, keep in mind that these are confirmed cases. So this map is an underestimate. According to some calculations, there may be 100,000 cases in Africa by December. Without rapid and massive international aid, this outbreak will not be controlled. On Twitter? I recommend following Laurie Garrett (Pulitzer prize winner for her writing on public health), who has a great commentary on the outbreak, which includes key documents such as this map. If you are interested in global health, you might also be interested in my book on the AIDS Pandemic in Latin America.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Ebola update

"3d Rendered Virus" by chrisroll
“3d Rendered Virus” by chrisroll

There is a great deal of news today about Ebola, which has now spread to Senegal, the fifth country in West Africa to be affected by the outbreak. The nation has tried to protect itself by banning flights from affected countries, but this is unlikely to be effective given that most people cross the border by ground transport. In Liberia the government has lifted the quarantine on the slum community of West Point, after widespread media reports that the quarantine was being flouted by people who bribed police to leave. At this time, quarantines do not seem to be effective in dense urban environments in developing countries; they are difficult to enforce, and the social costs are high. …

Ebola and Culture

"Wallpaper World" by Salvatore Vuono at freedigitalphotos.net
“Wallpaper World” by Salvatore Vuono at freedigitalphotos.net

A crowd of men recently overran an Ebola clinic in Liberia, after which 17 patients disappeared. One of the factors driving this event may have been a sense of denial that Ebola exists. Such concerns led to an improbable new pop culture hit in West Africa: a song titled “Ebola in Town.” In recent article on NPR (titled “`Shadow and `D-12′ Sing an infectious song about Ebola”) John Poole describes the emergence of this unlikely piece. At first, there would seem to be few things more inappropriate than a pop song about a fatal disease. But the song emerged from local concerns that people did not believe in Ebola, or understand how to fight the spread of the disease. For this reason, the song informs people about the appearance of Ebola, its spread through physical contact, the importance of social distancing and the dangers of bush meat. All with a catchy beat. Click here to read Poole’s article and hear the song. And bravo to NPR in general for their great coverage of the outbreak. Want to read more about the epidemic? One great source is Ian Mackay’s blog, Virology Down Under.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


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