Ebola outbreak creates concern in USD community
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This year’s surge of Ebola in West Africa is the largest and most complex outbreak since the virus was first discovered. According to the World Health Organization, there have been more Ebola cases and deaths in 2014 than in all other outbreaks combined.
Reuters reports Ebola has killed nearly 4,500 people in West Africa, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Last month, the United States was rattled when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visiting Dallas, Texas, fell ill from the virus and later died on Oct. 8. Two Dallas nurses, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, were also infected and are currently undergoing treatment.
As the Ebola virus continues to spread through West Africa and has now landed on U.S. soil, fears of the virus have grown amongst University of San Diego students, faculty and staff. However, as awareness increases, so does the USD community’s response to the outbreak, including fundraisers to help West Africans and planned outbreak simulations on campus to prepare USD in the event that the virus spreads to San Diego.
Corinne Brion, graduate assistant for the Global Center in USD’s School of Leadership and Education Services, SOLES, said the need to help those in West Africa was apparent. To help stop the spread of Ebola in Liberia, the Global Center held its annual Sale in the Sala during the first week of October. The yearly sale, which includes donated items from students and staff, raises money for an organization that is chosen by the Global Center each year. This year, the Center raised funds for the Foundation for Women.
According to Brion, the Global Center chose the Foundation for Women as this year’s partner because of the experience Paula Cordeiro, dean of SOLES, had in West Africa.
“Dean Cordeiro got to meet the CEO and founder [Deborah Lindholm] in Liberia when she went there,” Brion said.
Dean Paula Cordeiro said her concerns were elevated after leaving Liberia.
“I returned to the U.S. after leaving Liberia and then Ghana, and started paying close attention to the rising number of Ebola cases [there],” Cordeiro said.
Cordeiro was concerned for the safety of SOLES assistant professor, Dr. Joi Spencer, who had just arrived in Liberia with plans to conduct a workshop for local principals and school proprietors. Cordeiro decided to take quick action.
“When [Dr. Spencer] arrived she was supposed to do three days of training,” Cordeiro said. “After the first day I contacted her and said ‘you have to leave’ because of everything that was going on.”
After the dean’s experience, in West Africa the Global Center quickly teamed up with Foundation for Women back in San Diego, and held the fundraiser a semester earlier than usual. The Sale in the Sala raised roughly $2,200 for the Foundation for Women, which will use the funds to buy bleach and buckets for families in Liberia to install handwashing stations.
SOLES graduate student Mariko Peshon told San Diego’s NBC 7 why she bought items at the event.
“It’s an easy way to participate in something greater than ourselves,” Peshon said. “It starts very small and you may not know the effect right away, but you can have an impact.”
The tools for proper sanitation bought with proceeds from the sale are vital to reduce the spread of the Ebola. Transmission of the virus can happen through broken skin or through the eyes, nose and mouth in one of three confirmed ways: human contact with an infected animal such as a primate or bat, human-to-human contact through blood or body fluids, and through infected needles or other medical supplies. According to the Center for Disease Control, Ebola cannot be spread through water, air, food or mosquitoes.
According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus disease is a severe, often fatal illness, with a death rate of up to 90 percent. The illness affects humans and nonhuman primates. Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in a village near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the other in a remote area of Sudan. The origin of the virus is unknown.
Joi Spencer, an associate professor in SOLES who has spent time in Liberia, believes the civil war there has caused a lack of infrastructure in the country, making Liberians more susceptible to Ebola.
“There are a number of constraints making it difficult to fight Ebola and many other diseases there,” Spencer said. “Things like running water, sewage systems and sanitation pick up are protective structures that we enjoy in the U.S. and in many other countries in the world. These protections are not in Liberia, making even curable diseases quite deadly.”
Yet questions about the United States’ ability to control the spread of Ebola within its own borders has been called into question after nurse Nina Pham, who treated the first Ebola patient on U.S. soil, was diagnosed with the virus. Pham was wearing full protective gear when she contracted Ebola.
Pham’s diagnosis has sent shockwaves of concern throughout the healthcare field.
Dr. Sally Brosz Hardin, dean of USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Sciences, said those concerns are not felt on campus.
“Our nursing students and faculty are not anxious about this outbreak,” Hardin said.
Hardin believes the Ebola outbreak, and its subsequent spread to two U.S. nurses, can act as a reminder of the safety precautions healthcare workers must take.
“It can be used as an example of the importance of using very careful techniques with all patients, not just when there is an outbreak of a contagious disease,” Hardin said.
Still, fears of the deadly virus continue to spread throughout USD’s campus. Freshman Xinlei Chen, an international student from Guangzhou, China, is concerned about Ebola.
“It could be really serious,” Chen said. “I’m worried about [Ebola].”
However, Chen has faith in the United States’ ability to curtail the spread of Ebola within the country.
“I’m confident with America, because it is big and the medical technology is so advanced,” Chen said. “I’m more concerned about it in India and China because they have large populations. I think those places may be more dangerous to spread the disease.”
Despite the unlikelihood of a full-blown Ebola outbreak in the United States, last week President Barack Obama named Ron Klain the country’s “Ebola Czar,” appointing Klain to head the federal response to the Ebola crisis.
As Obama attempts to centralize the country’s response to Ebola, USD has also tried to bring clarity to its community through the creation of an Ebola information website.
Last Friday, USD Communications sent out a campuswide email directing students, staff and faculty to visit the Student Health Center’s ‘Understanding Ebola’ website.
Peter Marlow, associate vice president of University Communications, said the email was sent to provide students with reliable information about Ebola. Marlow believes the media frenzy has caused misinformation regarding the risks posed to students.
“The daily media coverage on Ebola in national news outlets and across social media channels has, in many cases, misrepresented the risk of Ebola,” Marlow said.
However, he feels there are other more concerning health risks that students should be aware of.
“Current health issues such as meningococcal meningitis or even influenza pose more risk to our campus community than Ebola,” Marlow said. “So, the initial intent of the new website and its timing was to provide better information for the campus community on these current health topics.”
The website also contains links to self-care information tips in response to numerous false alarms regarding the contraction of the virus. Ebola initially presents itself with flu-like symptoms, which has caused panic for those affected by this years’ flu season.
The website also states that there is a planned Ebola outbreak simulation in the coming weeks to test the university’s pandemic response. The simulation will be conducted by USD’s Sensitive Issues Team, which includes members from the Student Health Center and the Department of Public Safety.
Pamela Sikes, director of the Student Health Center, believes this exercise will help address concerns in the USD community.
“For emergency response plans that have not been tested in real-life situations, drills or exercises are important ways to prepare,” Sikes said.
Captain Quinton Kawahara of the Department of Public Safety said the exercises will be similar to last week’s Great California ShakeOut drill, which included a test of the All-Campus Alert system.
“The simulation will allow us to test the University’s pandemic response plan and improve and update those areas that need revisions or improvement,” Kawahara said. “The simulation will assist the Sensitive Issues Team in preparing in case of an actual incident.”
Despite national and local responses to the concerns of an Ebola outbreak, many agree that the key to preventing the spread of Ebola lies within helping West Africa.
In an interview with Time Magazine, the director of the Center for Disease Control, Dr. Tom Frieden, plotted a course for protecting Americans.
“The single most important thing to understand about protecting Americans from Ebola is that it can best be done by stopping it at the source in Africa,” Frieden said.
Frieden stressed that though Americans may fear the worst, the country’s concern for West Africa should be paramount to growing fears of homeland exposure.
“It’s normal to be scared of something as deadly as Ebola, and for the general public I really hope we can never let our fear undermine our compassion,” Frieden said.
Corinne Brion of USD’s Global Center believes the threat of Ebola is real, and hopes that the United States stays healthy enough to help those in West Africa.
“It is definitely not something we just talk about anymore, it’s there now, it’s real,” Brion said. “It is very scary and I hope we get a handle of it here so that we’re better able to help over there.”
Associate professor at SOLES Joi Spencer thinks the presence of Ebola in the United States works to illustrate global interconnectedness.
“I think that what we are seeing in the U.S. is just how connected we are as a human family,” Spencer said. “When we pray for the nurses here to recover from Ebola, I think it will be impossible for us not to also pray for those in [West Africa].”
As constant media coverage reveals more information in the ongoing Ebola crisis, USD continues its attempts to help those suffering in West Africa, while informing students and preparing for the possibility of a local outbreak.