The Ebola Challenge: With The People’s First Event

by Erika Eitland, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, MPH 15′

Devastated by civil wars, the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone already struggled to balance on fragile healthcare systems and were not prepared to take on the debilitating consequences of the largest Ebola outbreak in history. We can say that part of the devastation lies in being caught off guard, but the need for an answer to Ebola had been forecasted by experts well in advance.

Three months ago, I was sitting in Fort Tryon Park, with a coffee and a heavy copy of the Sunday New York Times. In a front-page article, Denise Grady and Sheri Fink wrote about patient zero in the Ebola outbreak, the potential causes for the 961 deaths and nearly 1,800 cases, to date, and the dire need for resources. After watching the deaths spike to over 5,000 with over 10,000 reported cases, three months later, I am unsure how I should feel. Sad, helpless, angry, motivated?


The collapse of the Western African health systems ravaged by Ebola certainly exacerbated the epidemic, and there is a strong possibility that the reported number of cases and deaths are grossly underestimated. Health facilities are especially overwhelmed, as trained health workers are limited, and the need for sanitary supplies and personal protective equipment is high. Relief efforts have slowly grown to include organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Samaritan’s Purse, the Centers for Disease Control, and World Health Organization. Even the nation of Cuba has sent its doctors to fight the outbreak. Paired with national and local ministries of health, these agencies are combating the regional crisis with any resources they can muster. Lacking basic personal protection equipment and such necessities as chlorine solution and buckets for cleaning, as well as non-porous gloves to prevent fluid transmission, the resource poor countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, have little to protect the health workers engaged with the epidemic.

This bout of Ebola has emerged in a significantly different context than previous outbreaks. The tested control and containment methodologies are up against new challenges. With globalization and the modern urban landscape, there has been a spread of misinformation locally and abroad. These obstacles hinder action, as we must return to the drawing board and explore the different factors of this outbreak.

There was once a time when students held a role where we could question and push the status quo to effect meaningful change. In today’s world, our voice has dwindled, and yet it is more important than ever that we take a stand. As students of public health working across diverse disciplines, we have a unique opportunity to use our collective experience and look for innovative solutions to an increasingly complex problem. The Ebola epidemic is not just an infectious disease outbreak. It is the systematic failure of regional infrastructure that impacts nutritional status, transportation, reproductive and maternal health, and the human rights of everyone affected. As students of public health, we cannot stand idle while this happens.


Unable to work on the frontlines of the epidemic, we are able to research, collaborate, and explore the current conditions and viable options for the future. As I read Denise Grady’s and Sheri Fink’s article, I felt that my time at Mailman had prepared me to make a difference. Not in some distant future, but now. It is time to use the language of public health and band together with friends, professors, and fellow students to confront this issue, regardless of our specific knowledge about Ebola, infectious diseases or complex emergencies. We all have a role to play.

In late September, Caroline Croyle, Dan Rosowski and myself along with many other passionate students came together to create WITH THE PEOPLE, a student-run initiative that creates a space for students to actively engage with the many factors of this outbreak. With the People recognizes the dire need for financial resources in the affected areas and for accurate, accessible resources that ease worries locally. Addressing these challenges will not be easy but through a fundraising partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières, we are eager to develop creative fundraising strategies. The Columbia University Medical Center campus provides us with seasoned mentors, scientists, doctors, and advocates that illuminate key issues and enrich the conversation among us.

On Tuesday, November 18th from 6pm – 8pm, WTP will kick off their efforts with a panel discussion and audience activities. This event will highlight varying perspectives including experts on the Ebola disease, on nutrition, and the built environment, and, specifically, will focus on student involvement. This is the first of a series of events that will actively engage Columbia University students. With the success of the Columbia Design Challenge: Confronting the Ebola Crisis, we saw a need for university-wide collaboration among students and faculty. With the People plans to continue to develop this student network as we work to find solutions to Ebola-related challenges through monthly case challenges, lectures, and various problem-focus committees.

There is a West African proverb, by crawling, a child learns to stand. Although the current Ebola epidemic may seem insurmountable, our collective efforts and talents can lead to the development of creative solutions. This is our opportunity to learn from other brave Columbia University Medical Center members, such as, Drs. Craig Spencer and Les Roberts. We need to explore new opportunities. The healthy recovery of the countries and people affected by this outbreak isn’t just a West African problem. This is a global health problem. We hope to be a solution.



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