State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Money, Power and the Media in the Ebola Crisis

(This post was updated on Nov. 7.)

Beyond urgent medical and humanitarian consequences and response demands, the growing Ebola crisis has serious implications for governments, the private sector, and public messengers. How do money, power and the media affect pandemics and other disaster events? How are they affected in return? And how to each relate to a society’s extent of preparedness or panic?

To address some of these issues, The Earth Institute has sponsored two discussions, the first on Oct. 27 titled “The Ebola Crisis: What It Means for West Africa and the World” on Oct. 27. You can watch a video of that conference on the National Center for Disaster Preparedness website.

Ebola worker Monrovia, Liberia. Photo: Caroline Van Nespen/Medecins Sans Frontieres
An Ebola worker in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo: Caroline Van Nespen/Medecins Sans Frontieres

The institute followed up that session with a special seminar Nov. 6, “Ebola and the Politics of Pandemic,” a discussion with experts in public health; that seminar was the first of the institute’s 2014-2015 Sustainable Development Seminar Series. The next on the series will be held Dec. 3, on climate; keep an eye on our Events page for details and registration.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and the Program on Child Well-Being and Resilience, led both discussions.

“By and large we’re using decades-, century-old public health strategies to manage a disease when we are literally trying to work in the absence of vaccines, of anti-virals, of the other things that we would have hoped and expect science to produce,” Redlener told those gathered at the Oct. 27 conference, held at Columbia University.

Public health specialist Dr. Ranu Dhillon, who has been working with the Guinean government on Ebola, said the epidemic there “is exceedingly controllable by doing what we already know how to do” – identifying those infected, getting them to treatment centers and keeping them from exposing others.

But the three nations facing the crisis right now – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – lack the health care facilities and transportation capability to do that. A further problem is peoples’ lack of trust that they can get needed treatment, and strong cultural influences such as traditional burial practices that can expose numbers of people to contamination by Ebola’s victims.

Dhillon said the number of cases in Guinea is rising, and “we’re at a key moment to try to get ahead of it and get it under control.”

As for the situation in the United States, “I’m worried that we’re not even serious yet about preventing the spread of Ebola through our health systems,” said Dr. Robert Kanter, a professor of pediatrics and an adjunct research scientist with the National Center on Disaster Preparedness. Kanter said hospitals need to better prepare with instruction and drills. “We have not practiced infectious disease fundamentals in most facilities,” he said.

Whatever the fears here at home, Redlener said eradicating Ebola in Africa is the key to managing the disease in the United States and elsewhere.

For more perspective, visit the National Center on Disaster Preparedness’ special web page on Ebola.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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