Erin Russell is Assistant Editor at CMAJ, currently attending the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) in New Orleans
Along with CMAJ’s editorial fellow, Moneeza Walji, I’m navigating my way through the more than 1,100 sessions on relevant public health topics that are on offer at the APHA conference this week. Yesterday I attended a session on the Ebola epidemic. Prior to coming to New Orleans, I was disappointed to hear that the State of Louisiana had issued a rather prohibitive public health advisory. The advisory calls on individuals who have traveled to the Ebola affected countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea, or who may have been exposed to Ebola virus in the previous three weeks, not to travel to New Orleans. This, despite the CDC’s assurance that 1) Ebola can only be spread by direct contact with blood or bodily fluids and 2) people with Ebola cannot spread the virus until symptoms appear.
My first instinct was to blog about my frustration with fear-based policies; my disappointment that the state felt the need to over-rule the judgement of the APHA and its members; and my outrage that the 13,000 APHA conference delegates were being deprived of our right to learn about this major international public health crisis from those with first-hand knowledge of the situation. Fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to write that emotional knee-jerk reaction blog.
The APHA’s response to the State-imposed travel ban was much more diplomatic.
In it, Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the APHA, acknowledged the APHA’s disagreement with the policy, their efforts to communicate their concerns to state and local leaders and their recognition that State has the best interests of the people of Louisiana [and 13,000 APHA conference delegates] at heart. The APHA has also made available pink ribbons with the slogan #FactsOverFear and invited delegates to wear them with pride as a sign of our respect for science.
The Ebola session was held on the first full day of the conference and the room was packed.
The six speakers presented a wealth of information on the current epidemic in West Africa and what it means to us in North America. While they may not have been in contact with Ebola virus in the past 21 days, their stories and perspectives were amazingly fresh. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to hear them speak.
- Tim Robertson spent two weeks in Guinea as a Red Cross volunteer. He spoke of the challenges with communication, social mobilization, dead body management, and disinfection.
- Emmanuel d’Harcourt is a Senior Health Director with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). He had worked in Liberia and Sierra Leone for years leading up to the epidemic. He spoke candidly about the need to shift the focus from treatment of Ebola to prevention of Ebola.
- Jide Idris, Lagos State Commissioner for Health, spoke proudly about case containment in Nigeria, certified Ebola-free by the WHO on October 20th.
- Kim Kargbo, President and CEO of Women of Hope International, told personal stories of families affected by Ebola that will haunt me for years.
- Pamela Cipriano, President of the American Nurses Association (ANA) advocated for common sense.
- Catherine Womack spoke to ethical issues related to the Ebola epidemic: The gap between the haves and the have-nots, how much risk is too much?, and why is there no patient confidentiality when it comes to Ebola?
#FactsOverFear has become the unofficial conference mantra. It speaks to the need for public health officials to speak clearly and consistently in times of crisis (i.e., Ebola epidemic in West Africa) and in times of non-crisis (i.e. Ebola in North America).