Ebola examined in latest InFocus discussion

UB students and faculty discuss Ebola epidemic

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Olga Crombie, assistant director of UB Study Abroad, said she is preparing for worried phone calls from parents after recently accepting 16 UB students into a program to Tanzania.

Due to the widespread news of the Ebola epidemic, Crombie understands parents will be angry or fearful of their children traveling to Africa.

“Feelings are going to be even more ramped up,” Crombie said.

Crombie was one of approximately 40 people to share her thoughts in UB’s latest InFocus discussion. On Oct. 10, students and faculty gathered in Capen Hall to discuss the current Ebola epidemic. The virus continues to remain prominent in American media, especially following the first case in the United States. A nurse who cared for Thomas Duncan, an American who died from Ebola Wednesday, was diagnosed with the virus, health officials said Sunday.

Friday’s discussion was the ninth installment in the InFocus series, which started in the fall of 2014. Previous topics have included Miley Cyrus, Syria and smoking.

Dr. Heather Lindstrom, a research assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at UB and chief epidemiologist with the Erie County Department of Health, moderated the event. Her role was to guide participants through an active discussion on how people are responding to the current Ebola epidemic – which she said is enormous in comparison with past outbreaks.

As of Sunday, there have been about 8,000 confirmed cases of Ebola and 4,000 Ebola-related deaths in West Africa and other countries around the world, according to Lindstrom. Up until the start of the current epidemic – which the CDC cites as March 2014 – there were about 3,000 cases, showing how “the magnitude has truly changed,” she said.

Kelly Kamm, adjunct instructor in the department of epidemiology and environmental health, partnered with Lindstrom in leading this discussion. She asked participants why, as a western country, the United States should care about what is going on in Africa.

Robert Rondinaro, a junior biology major, said the world is globalized and international travel is available and accessible, facilitating possible infections across national borders.

“If you don’t try to contain the diseases right at the initial source, you’re going to have to deal with outbreaks all over the world and that becomes exponentially harder to contain,” Rondinaro said.

Lindstrom also asked participants if they felt the news cycle has been “scaring the heck out of the public” or if the media is trying to “keep things calm and collected.”

Chris Bragdon, a student engagement coordinator and international student adviser at UB, said the news has been fair and consistent, but what scares the public is their imagination.

“We have this fascination with the post-apocalyptic and that perpetuates the fear,” Bragdon said.

He said zombies have become a big deal in recent years with TV shows like “The Walking Dead” and movies like Contagion and Outbreak, which create a possible reality for the public.

He said he sees a lot of the fear of Ebola come from individuals and not so much the mainstream media.

Andy Wagh, a senior biological science major, said when he watches zombie movies like World War Z, he will forget about it afterwards. But when something like the Ebola epidemic comes up, he said people will associate the two and the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world will become very real.

Lindstrom experience how medical threats can drive people to act illogically during a 2008 Hepatitis A outbreak in Buffalo.

Lindstrom worked at a clinic at the time, helping to vaccinate people. Someone noticed a man toward the back of the line whose oxygen tank was running low. The staff wanted to move the man up the line to avoid him any potential harm from running out of oxygen.

Lindstrom said people were “besides themselves that they had the audacity to move him up.” She said Hepatitis A is not as dangerous as Ebola, but people were still panicking and emotional.

“I get the fear,” Lindstrom said. “When people are frightened they don’t act rationally.”

Some students who attended the discussion found it helpful. Lisa Anang, a junior undecided major, said the session put her mind at ease.

Anang finds it ignorant to “run around thinking, ‘Oh, it’s Ebola.’” She thinks raising awareness is key, so people don’t think minor symptoms mean a person has Ebola.

“You don’t have to freak out when someone coughs,” Anang said.

Krystal Martin, a junior health and human services and sociology major, attended the talk with Anang and has attended an InFocus session previously. She enjoys the events because they help students gain more knowledge on different topics.

Prior to the conversation, Martin wondered why health care professionals wore masks and bodysuits if the virus was not airborne. Now she understands it is to be cautious because bodily fluids can infect the workers. She said the discussion was informative and helped clarify the symptoms and causes of the disease.

Lindstrom understands the severity of the Ebola epidemic and said everyone has to be hopeful that the situation will get better.

The next InFocus discussion is on Nov. 7. Organizers have yet to announce the topic.

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