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Battling Ebola with Data

In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 file photo, a healthcare worker dons in protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP Photo/Michael Duff, File)
In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 file photo, a healthcare worker dons in protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP Photo/Michael Duff, File)

The World Health Organization recently called for 900 more epidemiologists to join the battle against Ebola in West Africa. That’s triple the current number. Epidemiologists study the patterns of disease outbreaks to determine how they spread and where they may go next.

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Upon hearing the WHO announcement regarding epidemiologists, Dr. Rossi Hassad said it’s about time. Hassad is an epidemiologist himself and a professor at Mercy College in New York.

“An epidemiologist is a health care professional, who is concerned with the distribution and determinants of diseases in a community. They operate at the population level, rather than the individual or clinical level. They are investigators or what we called detectives of medicine. And they focus largely on intelligence – data about morbidity, mortality – meaning illness, death and symptoms,” he said.

The information they gather is used to create a geographical map and timeline of the outbreak. Epidemiologists, though, do not treat patients.

“So an epidemiologist will be analyzing data. Would be presenting data. Will be using various algorithms to help to explain and predict where symptoms are occurring and what we might see next. So it’s largely analytical work that an epidemiologist does,” he said.

An algorithm is used in math and computer science. It’s described as a step-by-step procedure for calculations.

Hassad said epidemiologists are a necessity in the fight against Ebola. He said there’s a saying regarding infectious diseases: “A case anywhere is a risk everywhere.”

“With Ebola a single case can reignite an epidemic. And you need every contact from every case. And it’s good, old fashion epidemiology that helps us to find those contacts and properly assess them,” he said.

He said epidemiologists pay “strict attention to psychosocial and sociocultural factors and dynamics.” One of the most important things they will do, he said, is set up a comprehensive surveillance system.

“We have had a huge focus on the clinical component of this epidemic. And what that does is it doesn’t interrupt the chain of transmission. So you have a steady flow of cases with a huge focus on treatment,” he said.

Besides being critical of the initial slow response to the outbreak, Hassad said there has been a lack of collaboration between the clinical and public health arms of medicine.

“At times the information and narrative that we have heard and seen suggested one of competition – protection of turf -- rather than collaboration and cooperation. And I hope that for 2015 and beyond we could improve on that.”

Similar complaints of a lack of cooperation and openness were heard during the earlier years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Dr. Hassad praised the current fast-tracking of Ebola research.

“Ebola has been with us for 40 years and, as we all know, the lack of action or the inaction over the years was largely because of a lack of financial or economic incentive to move along pharmaceutical research and production. Now, I think the huge threat that this epidemic poses will motivate governments to support. I think we will see that,” he said.

However, he’s not sure that an effective vaccine will be ready in time to have a major effect on the epidemic. The outbreak, however, could result in better overall healthcare for Africans.

“I do believe that the magnitude of the current epidemic will be a huge motivating factor to get projects moving along to improve the healthcare infrastructure of West Africa. Sustaining it will be another concern,” he said.

Dr. Hassad warned the lack of emphasis given to epidemiology in the Ebola outbreak until now could mean it will continue through most of the year.