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Brandeis community actively involved in combating Ebola

Published: December 4, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories


Since the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” in August, alumni, researchers and students at Brandeis have been instrumental in developing an Ebola virus disinfectant system. The community has also been active in the discussion about the onset, economic impact and health effects of the disease.

Brandeis alumnus Dr. Christopher Doona M.A. ’89 Ph.D. ’91 has been a key leader in the invention of a “next-generation disinfectant system that kills the Ebola virus on surfaces,” according to an Army press release from Oct. 21. Doona and his fellow scientists at the United States Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center have patented a novel chemical system, which is currently being used to sterilize medical equipment and other electronic items in West Africa. One of the center’s breakthroughs has been the development of decontamination technologies to “keep the warfighter healthy and safe from bioterror attack.” This has been invented through a “no-power-required” method, using chlorine dioxide, better known as CIO2, which has been portably generated to use in combating contaminants. Doona has been the lead inventor of this portable field method and in the press release says “an important exponent of CIO2 is its versatility as a disinfectant suitable for any industry, ranging from textiles, medicine, wastewater treatment and public health to food safety, personal hygiene and household uses.”

Meanwhile, at Brandeis, Dr. Michael Willrich, the Leff Families Professor of History and the author of the award-winning book “Pox: An American History,” says the public’s reaction to the Ebola crisis is similar to that of the 20th-century smallpox outbreak. In an interview with BrandeisNOW, Willrich discusses the parallels in both epidemics in terms of advances in the field of public health, vaccines, quarantining, the nation’s preparation for the crisis and civil rights lessons.

In his book, Willrich writes about the smallpox epidemics becoming “politically explosive,” as they created a strong response from the government on the local, state and federal levels. In the smallpox epidemic, according to Willrich, the courts sided with public health, but he also clarified that the incident cases of smallpox led to future stronger measures in the public’s safety.

Willrich states that the power and duty to prevent the dissemination of contagious diseases lies within police power, which has traditionally been applied at the state and local levels, not at the federal level. As for quarantining, he says that “its use can certainly be dramatic,” and in American history, it remains to be one of the most controversial topics in public health. According to Willrich, his opinion is that the use of quarantine in the United States thus far “has not been clearly thought out.” Willrich believes that the historic epidemic of the smallpox crisis offered a message about the importance of public education, and this, he believes, can be applied directly to the case of Ebola. He mentioned the case of Kaci Hickox, the nurse who was quarantined after returning to the United States after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. Hickox felt her human rights were violated, and Willrich mentions that all subjects in quarantine should have basic rights reviewed by a court of law.

At Brandeis, the discussion around the Ebola crisis continues to circulate among students, faculty, and researchers. On Oct. 31st, Dr. Theo J.C. Lippeveld, an adjunct professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, spoke about the three contributing factors to the outbreak that need to be examined for future crises. These include an exponential spread in the initial phase of the epidemic, a slow initial response from international agencies and the failing health systems in the three countries most affected. Lippeveld, vice president of the international division at a public health consulting firm John Snow, Inc., spoke alongside Dr. Allyala Krishna Nandakumar, director of the Ph.D. Program at Heller and chief economist of the Global Health Bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Nandakumar spoke about the economic perspective of the outbreak, stating it “has had a profound effect in West Africa, including the fuel and agriculture sectors.” He also mentioned the impact of American aid, remarking that “from early August to today, when you look at what the U.S. government has done, it’s quite outstanding.”

On Monday Nov. 24, Rima Tahini ’16 and Nadege Seppou ’15, held a discussion in the ICC lounge discussing the various issues regarding the Ebola crisis. Members in the audience discussed the global impact of the outbreak but also commented on the effects of the disease on a local level here at Brandeis.

The Health Center at Brandeis has released information on the disease as well as precautions to take if traveling to affected areas. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has requested that colleges and universities in the state have plans to monitor returning travelers from the affected regions.