The True Killer in the Ebola Outbreak

There have been 22,560 reported cases of the Ebola virus since February 10th, with a fatality rate of about 70%. As such, I am part of a team of students working to reduce those numbers and to prevent future infectious disease outbreaks through the Grand Challenges program at Georgia Tech. Our approach to improving the West African healthcare system is to facilitate better communication and to foster relationships between world health organizations and local communities in West Africa.

On January 13th, fellow Grand Challenger Lauren Aycock and I traveled to Oxford, England for the Ebola 2015 Symposia. This conference brought together a wide range of specialists from across the spectrum of infectious diseases and gave us the opportunity to meet the leaders involved with the global Ebola response. Though the Grand Challenges team has far to go before we join the ranks of these leaders, our curiosity and fresh eyes gave us a little insight into the efforts against Ebola. One issue we noticed was how little the scientists interacted across disciplines; namely, modeling experts argued with public health officials that the outbreak could have been prevented altogether if their research had been taken more seriously. Meanwhile, anthropologists showed epidemiologists the amount of time and resources which had been wasted due to a lack of cultural awareness. Lauren and I realized that if these connections had been formed earlier and made more transparent, the number of preventable deaths could have been much less.

The current trend of keeping information private until publication is a barrier to many areas of scientific progress; a need for public acknowledgement, regardless of the arena, can sometimes inhibit effective communication and efficient problem-solving. As such, our team is working to help foster interdisciplinary communication between the organizations involved in the Ebola prevention effort by creating a transparent data-sharing platform tailored to their needs. This situation serves as a reminder to those of us here at Tech (who can tend to get caught up in our individual projects) that large-scale change is not restricted to the laboratory and is contingent upon collaboration.