Science & Technology Society & Culture

UGA experts available to comment on issues relating to Ebola virus

Glen Nowak

Athens, Ga. – The University of Georgia has experts available to speak about various aspects of the Ebola virus-health communications, health promotion, field treatment and how the outbreak is impacting research projects in Africa.

Experts and quotes follow below:

Glenn Nowak
Director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication
Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication

Nowak is also a communications consultant for the Task Force for Global Health. Prior to joining the Grady faculty in January 2013, he worked 14 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He spent six years as director of media relations at CDC and six years as communications director for CDC’s National Immunization Program. Nowak can speak about the risk and health communication issues, as well as challenges and approaches when dealing with infectious diseases like Ebola. He can also talk about what government public health agencies typically are doing or trying to do when it comes to communication.

“Ebola brings tremendous communication challenges. There’s great urgency for information and advice, including from the news media and public, but there’s also usually much skepticism and distrust,” Nowak said. “Building trust and gaining confidence often requires acknowledging fears, concerns and uncertainties-and that’s usually difficult for government and public health officials to do. With diseases like Ebola, communication needs to address and guide people’s fears and concerns, and avoid coming across as uncaring or overly confident.”

Dr. Christopher Whalen
Earnest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology
Interim department head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the College of Public Health

Whalen is knowledgeable about the disease and its epidemiology. He said the virus is most likely going to stay in Africa.

“We believe that between epidemics, the virus resides in fruit bats. These bats are very common in Africa, but uncommon in the U.S. So, in the U.S. the virus has no place to ‘hide’ before another epidemic. That is why the officials at the CDC stress universal precautions in hospitals as the best way to handle any cases that may come into the U.S.

“Ebola is a minor epidemic compared to influenza, for example. Every year, we see over 20,000 cases of influenza in the U.S., and many deaths associated with it. Compared to the 30 million HIV infections that have occurred, Ebola is small. What makes Ebola frightening is that epidemics seem to appear unpredictably and resolve for reasons we don’t know. It is also frightening because its short-term mortality is high-50 percent-and happens quickly. Although untreated HIV has a 100 percent mortality, it takes 10 to 15 years before death occurs.”

Tamora Callands
Assistant research scientist in health promotion and behavior, College of Public Health

Her current research takes her to Liberia on a regularly basis (she was there this summer) and she could comment about how the outbreak has affected her work.

“What is taking place in West Africa is devastating,” she said. “Unfortunately, the governments in the region do not have the health care infrastructure to fully contain the virus at the moment. They are doing the best they can with the resources available. In Liberia, where our projects are situated, President Sirleaf has shut down governmental offices and institutions mandating that all non-essential staff stay home. This will allow the government and aid providers to disinfect buildings, etc. At the moment, our projects have come to a halt. We work in very impoverished communities with high-risk populations (i.e., pregnant women, substance users and others affected by trauma). We partner directly with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, and they are working diligently to contain the current outbreak and inform the public of the symptoms and the necessary precautionary measures. From what they can tell, the major issues thwarting efforts to contain the virus are fear, myths and beliefs surrounding the virus and its etiology. My hope is that it will be contained sooner rather than later because people are dying.

“As a psychologist, my immediate thoughts are with families suffering. However, I can’t help but to also think about the aftermath. Family members are suffering and dying, and in some cases families are unable to give their loved ones ‘proper’ burials. As you can imagine, this may have serious implications for the grieving process and subsequently may impact the mental health of those affected. The central focus of our work in Liberia is to reduce mental health problems and HIV risk behavior, so I am also concerned about the implications this may have on the mental health of the population even after the virus is contained. We are going to definitely have our work cut out for us.”

Trina von Waldner
Director of continuing education and outreach, division of nontraditional education and outreach, College of Pharmacy

She teaches awareness and field treatment for Ebola to pharmacists and other health professionals who are part of the disaster health system.

“Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever that does not have a vaccine or specific drug treatment. It is primarily managed with supportive care but there are some drugs that have been effective in some situations,” von Waldner said. “The main thing about Ebola is although it is considered a potential biologic weapon, in most cases, persons with the virus become rapidly ill and are symptomatic. It has a very high fatality rate but treatments in the past few years have significantly improved survival. You do not wait for diagnosis confirmation before initiating treatment.”

John L. Gittleman
Dean, Odum School of Ecology

Gittleman is an expert on macroecology, using large databases and statistical methods to answer questions about issues including emerging infectious diseases.

“Ebola is a dangerous, deadly disease, but one that can be avoided by smart surveillance,” Gittleman said. “We know that the virus is transmitted to people from wild animals, typically bats, rodents and non-human primates. Once there’s a spillover to the human population then there’s an outbreak through human-to-human transmission. Presently, the challenge with Ebola is to confine it quickly and effectively. A more long-reaching strategy is to better predict outbreaks by screening and monitoring natural populations of bat species and other carriers before there’s a spillover to humans.”