UMB Ebola Symposium: Fighting Ebola During the Post-Panic Phase

November 21st, 2014 by Ben Yelin

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A month ago, the Ebola outbreak was dominating the nightly news in the United States. One infected patient in Dallas had died, and an unknown number of medical professionals had been exposed. A man returning from Western Africa came to New York, rode the subway and went bowling. A nurse was quarantined in New Jersey under what she described as “inhumane” conditions. The outbreak even found its way into our own backyard, as the University of Maryland Medical Center handled a suspected Ebola patient. Over the past few weeks, however, Ebola left the front pages. The only person who had tested positive for Ebola in the United States after the Dallas outbreak, Dr. Craig Spencer, was given a clean bill of health after intensive treatment and was allowed to return home. Our populace turned its collective attention to the midterm elections, immigration, Kim Kardashian, and the NFL playoff push.

The Ebola problem, however, did not go away. Policymakers and the public health community still confront the deadly epidemic in Western Africa and the potential for more infected citizens in the United States. President Obama this past Tuesday warned that “although we should feel optimistic about our capacity to solve the Ebola crisis, we cannot be complacent simply because the news attention on it has waned.”

In this spirit, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) held a symposium on the Ebola outbreak Tuesday, November 18th, at the School of Nursing. Taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge from a diverse set of professional schools and centers, the symposium was an interdisciplinary discussion on the status of the outbreak and response strategies, led by university professionals and national leaders. The event, attended by members of the UMB community and the community at-large, featured a series of experts on a wide range of topics related to the outbreak. Topics ranged from strategies to control the global outbreak, to updates on the development of an Ebola vaccine, to the protection of health care workers addressing the epidemic in Western Africa.

The Center for Health and Homeland Security was proud to participate in the event. Our own Trudy Henson, JD, Public Health Program Manager, discussed the legal issues surrounding mandatory state quarantines. Ms. Henson spoke about the quarantine policies instituted in New Jersey, which led to a nurse being held in poor conditions, as a case study in how not to institute a quarantine policy. In contrast, Henson praised the more measured Maryland response, which was implemented in a way that respected the dignity and integrity of returning medical professionals.

Professors and medical practitioners talked about using relatively new vaccine technologies to expedite the availability of a vaccine, one of which is being developed and tested at the University’s Center for Vaccine Development. Dr. Clement Adebamowo of the School of Medicine spoke about the Nigerian experience combatting a deadly disease in a country of 170 million with vast wealth disparities. Deborah Wilson, RN, a nurse volunteer from Doctors Without Borders gave a poignant view of her experience treating patients in Liberia. She gave a firsthand account of what it was like treating the disease in the field, and outlined the extraordinary risks nurses take in pursuit of public health. Among the nearly 15 speakers, the audience also heard from Joshua Sharfstein, MD, Maryland’s Secretary for Health and Mental Hygiene about the State’s response. The symposium underscored the immense amount of expertise we house here at UMB, and across Maryland.

As a pandemic disease leaves the front pages, there is always the risk that the populace will let its guard down and become complacent in the face of a continuing threat. The Center was pleased to collaborate with our peers at UMB to keep the conversation on Ebola moving forward.

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