Health professionals talk experiences on front lines of Ebola outbreak

People aren’t allowed to touch each other in Sierra Leone right now, according to Nahid Bhadelia, an epidemiologist at the Boston Medical Center. Schools are closed, she said, and baptisms, weddings, and funerals have been put on hold throughout the entire country because of the Ebola outbreak that has devastated West Africa in recent months.

Bhadelia recently spent a few weeks in Sierra Leone, working with the World Health Organization to administer care to Ebola patients. She shared her first-hand account at an educational panel discussion on the Ebola outbreak on Tuesday afternoon in Northeastern’s Cabral Center.

The Bouvé College of Health Sciences, the NU Integrated Initiative for Global Health, and Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice were part of a consortium that sponsored the event.

In the first keynote address, Bhadelia noted the need to increase the number of areas designed to combat the outbreak, which according to the WHO as of Sept. 28 has claimed more than 3,000 lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

“There just aren’t enough people [to provide care],” Bhadelia said. “We need medical volunteers, we need people to help with health education, case management, and triage. We need help with everything.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids or objects such as needles that have been contaminated; it is not spread through the air or by water, or, in general, food. Ebola can only be spread by people who are infected with it or who are showing symptoms.

On Tuesday the CDC announced the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the U.S. The patient is an adult male in Dallas who returned to the country from Liberia last week. On Wednesday morning, CDC Director Tom Frieden told NBC’s TODAY show that a “handful” of people who may have been contact with the patient are being monitored, but he expressed confidence that “we will stop Ebola in its tracks in the U.S.”

Other keynote speaker Adam Levine, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brown University and an emergency room doctor at Rhode Island Hospital, recently returned from Liberia. He worked with the International Medical Corps to set up an Ebola Treatment Unit in Bong County, one of the country’s most heavily affected areas.

He showed pictures of the facility and explained the process behind its construction. “It was a learning curve for us because the International Medical Corps has never opened an Ebola Treatment Unit before,” Levine said. “At a regular hospital the primary goal is to care for the patients. At an Ebola Treatment Unit the primary goal is to protect the staff from getting sick.”

Bhadelia and Levine were joined on the panel by Northeastern’s Michael Pollastri and Richard Wamai. Pollastri is an associate professor of chemistry and the head of the university’s Lab for Neglected Disease Drug Discovery. Wamai is an assistant professor of African American Studies and an expert on HIV/AIDS and neglected tropical diseases.

Pollastri opened the discussion by saying that the Ebola epidemic could improve the focus on diseases in the developing world. “You can’t ignore a disease for decades and expect that when Americans come home with it that we will have a treatment within a week,” he said.

During the Q-and-A, the panelists were asked to explain how to improve the global response to future outbreaks. In Wamai’s view, a greater investment must be made in developing countries’ healthcare infrastructure. “The future can look brighter if we have groups, such as the World Bank, that can be responsible for expanding the infrastructure of the hospital systems in these places,” he said.