In the midst of a false alarm over the possibility of a patient with Ebola in New Haven, panelists at the Yale Ebola Task Force’s first event yesterday afternoon made a resounding call for solidarity and rationality in the face of the current epidemic.
Across campus, students reacted to news that Yale-New Haven Hospital had admitted a Yale graduate student exhibiting Ebola-like symptoms, and awaited announcement of the patient’s test results. Some had faith in the hospital’s ability to respond, but others wondered why the public health school had allowed the student to come back to the U.S. from Liberia.
“Even though they haven’t used this particular protocol [before], I have faith in Yale-New Haven,” said Rebecca Leibowitz ’18.
Karen Cruz ’15 agreed, adding that the panic she saw across campus was unnecessary, considering that the test results had not yet confirmed anything yet.
But Cami Cottani ’15 questioned the University’s decision making.
“Why was he brought back to Yale after he was exposed?” she asked.
Panelists at the forum — “Beyond the Headlines: Understanding the Ebola Epidemic and Crisis Relief Initiatives” — sought to assuage fears about the epidemic by explaining why the U.S. is well-prepared to contain the virus and called for greater political will in helping West African nations do the same. The panel — which took place in a packed room in Linsly Chittenden Hall, attracting over 100 attendees — was composed of Yale School of Public Health professor Kristina Talbert-Slagle and Yale World Fellows Christopher Lockyear and Susana Edjang. Moderated by Branford College Master and Director of the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute Elizabeth Bradley, the panel was the first in a series of three events that the Task Force has planned.
“Sometimes the best antidote to fear is more information,” said Talbert-Slagle, a senior scientific officer at the GHLI, explaining the decision to hold the panel. She acknowledged that people are very afraid, but stressed that America has the resources and infrastructure to contain the virus, including personal protective equipment, isolation facilities and well-trained medical staff.
Ebola, she told the audience, is not as transmittable as many might think. It can only be passed on via direct contact with the bodily fluids of symptomatic patients, she said, emphasizing that the virus is highly unlikely to turn airborne — none of the other viruses in the same family have acquired this ability.
The outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has been especially severe because of the nation’s lack of medical infrastructure and human resources, Talbert-Slagle said. And though the international community has been forthcoming in constructing isolation centers, there has been a severe shortfall in the much-needed personnel to staff these centers, added Lockyear, who serves as operations manager at Doctors without Borders.
Based on current U.N. projections that 20,000 people will be infected by November, an estimated 600 skilled clinicians will be needed to contain the epidemic, said Edjang, who serves as economic, social and development affairs officer at the United Nations. That number may seem realistic to achieve, but countries have been reluctant to deploy adequate medical personnel, the panelists said.
The healthcare system in Liberia has basically collapsed, Lockyear said. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by the volume of Ebola patients, and medical workers are afraid of turning up for work, he said. Patients suffering from treatable conditions — like malaria — now avoid going to health care centers for fear of contracting Ebola, resulting in an uptick in preventable disease fatalities, he added.
Lockyear suggested that people thinking about the recent cases in the United States will also think about West Africa, where the epidemic originated. But he was quick to warn against pursuing crisis relief initiatives out of self-interest alone. Humanitarian considerations are reason enough to help, he said.
“I hope that each person leaves here with an agenda to move the political will,” Bradley said.
The call to global solidarity resonated with students interviewed. Rachel Arnesen ’17 said that too much attention has been placed on the few U.S. cases. She evoked the need to focus more attention on the worst-hit countries and praised the panel for bringing attention to the issue.
Others commended the forum for providing much-needed information to dispel misconceptions surrounding the disease.
“I feel much more informed. They did a great job communicating the science behind Ebola,” Cole Citrenbaum ’17 said.
Allison Saran YSN ’16, speaking before Yale-New Haven Hospital announced that the Yale graduate student had tested negative for Ebola, said the case brought Ebola much closer to home, but expressed confidence in the local healthcare system.
“I think that Yale is fully equipped to deal with the situation,” she said.
The Yale Ebola Task Force plans to hold a lecture on Ebola on Oct. 27 and a benefit concert on Nov. 8.