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Experts from Various Fields Discuss Ebola Impact

By Quinn T. Mulholland, Contributing Writer

UPDATED: Sept. 23, 2014, at 9:28 p.m.

The Ebola virus could have an exponentially more disastrous effect on West Africa if the international community does not act soon, an interdisciplinary panel of experts warned at an event in the Barker Center Tuesday.

The event, sponsored by the Committee on African Studies, was aimed at raising awareness of the deadly toll of the Ebola outbreak in west African nations like Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, according to Susan E. Cook, executive director of the Committee.

“We felt like this thing is a huge issue, and not a lot of people understand this,” Cook said. “It’s really, really important that, as Harvard, we give it its due attention.”

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the panel, Cook said, the discussion helped shed light on the complex issue of Ebola from multiple perspectives.

“I had chills sitting here realizing that these people don’t otherwise get to talk to one another; they don’t otherwise get to learn from one another,” Cook said of the panelists.

Patrick Vinck, a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the response to the outbreak could be complicated by the fact that many West African residents are wary of outside officials coming in and instructing them on how to respond to the outbreak, even if they have good intentions.

“That relationship between the health sector and the people [of West Africa] is not as well established as it is in dealing with the Church, for example,” Vinck said.

Maggie Koerth-Baker, another panelist and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, said the media response to the outbreak has been subpar.

“We’re making all of our stories based on our assumptions of what the story already is, instead of finding out what the story is,” Koerth-Baker said.

Kristian G. Andersen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Center for Systems Biology, said he travelled to Guinea as soon as he heard Ebola had been confirmed there. Even after the current outbreak subsides, it is essential to improve health infrastructure in West Africa to prevent similar outbreaks in the future, Andersen said.

“Once it ends, we can’t just leave and say, ‘We solved Ebola,' because Ebola is now in the region," Anderson said. "It will happen again, and the next time, we need to be able to stop it at the first case.”

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