UF experts see many factors behind Ebola outbreak

A combination of political instability, inadequate health systems, an insufficient international response and distrust of government contributed to the ongoing Ebola outbreak that has so far killed nearly 3,900 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

That was the general consensus of five University of Florida faculty members who participated in a Wednesday night forum on the West African Ebola epidemic put on by the Bob Graham Center for Public Service.

The event at Pugh Hall was held on the same day that the first diagnosed patient in the United States, a Liberian national, died in a Dallas hospital.

The forum’s moderator, Leonardo Villalon, dean of the UF International Center and a professor of political science, said university officials had met just Tuesday to discuss how they would respond to a case on campus. At the same time, Villalon said they did not expect to see a case at UF.

Dr. Paul Psychas, with the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, said Zaire ebolavirus, the most common and deadly of the virus disease’s five species, was behind the current outbreak. Psychas, who served as a medical officer in West Africa for 10 years, said it was the common form of that species, not some mutated variation. But weak medical systems — Liberia has one to two doctors for every 100,000 people — were caught off guard and further decimated as doctors, nurses and other frontline caregivers exposed to ebola contracted the disease and died, and hospitals closed.

While praising the relief group Doctors Without Borders, Psychas said the international response has not been sufficient. The World Health Organization does not have sufficient operational resources to contain an outbreak.

Sharon Abramowitz, an assistant professor of anthropology and a faculty member with the Center for African Studies, said the United States has consistently pumped large sums of money into Liberia — to help reconstruct the country after the civil war that ended in 2003 and for government aid. The result, she said, has been a well-funded facade of government effectiveness in a country that lacks infrastructure in terms of roads and cars or the ability to conduct proper disease surveillance to track and contain an epidemic.

Abramowitz said the current United States response has not been sufficient. The U.S. has sent 350 military personnel and that may increase to 4,000 to serve in support and logistics roles during the construction of 17 Ebola treatment centers. She said the outbreak should instead serve as an opportunity for the military to make a “robust” response to a health crisis.

On the other hand, Timothy Nevin, a visiting professor with the department of history and a faculty member with the Center for African Studies, disagreed with sending in any military personnel. After the civil war, Nevin said the people of Liberia would not want to see armed military personnel walking around. He said it also raised questions of sovereignty.

On the onset of the outbreak, he said some Liberians distrustful of their government thought it was a “hoax” to get more international aid. When they did seek treatment, they would find no space at treatment centers and hospitals where patients were on the floor or lying two to a bed. So they returned home where they infected family members.

“That’s the nightmare going on there,” Nevin said.

He said to contain the virus, communities had to mobilize, keeping the ill quarantined on what was essentially house arrest while delivering food and water through windows.

Psychas said the best response to prevent the disease from spreading further throughout the world would be to place more resources to the three West African countries.

Jill Sonke, the director of the Center for Arts in Medicine, with College for the Arts, said “mobilizing artists” could play a positive role in a public health awareness campaign. She said the arts can “simplify a message,” pointing to the murals showing Ebola symptoms that have been painted in the Liberian capital of in Monrovia.

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Dan Mullin is an active writer and editor for the Pluto Daily who covered the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Mullin attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine before leaving to pursue his lifelong science goal of allowing humans to live forever via a computer/brain transfer.