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“The Ebola outbreak is [the World Health Organization’s] 9/11,” declared leading infectious disease expert Michael T. Olsterholm, the keynote speaker at an October 2014 symposium hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The event brought together experts across a range of disciplines to broaden the conversation around the current and future responses to the crisis and consider solutions to one of the most significant public health challenges in recent memory.

Speakers discussed the impact of the West Africa epidemic, the status of vaccines and possible pharmacologic therapies, recommendations to prevent spread of the disease outside of West Africa, and other issues.

“The virus is operating on virus time and the rest of us are operating on bureaucracy and program time, and the virus is winning hands down," warned Olsterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), University of Minnesota.

Looking back, with a certain amount of distance from the worst of the epidemic, it's clear that Liberia’s Deputy Minister of Health for Disease Surveillance and Epidemic Control and Bloomberg School alumnus, Tolbert Nyenswah, MPH ’12, did heroic work in his native Liberia to make sure that Ebola didn't win. In coordinating Liberia's robust response, he worked with international governemnts and health organizations and launched a critical domestic and international communications program to promote behavior change.

David Peters, MD, DrPH ’93, MPH ’89, chair of the Department of International Health and an expert in the development of global health systems, traveled to Liberia to provide technical support in developing and revising protocols, training materials and community mobilization strategies. He also led a team from the School and the Johns Hopkins Schools of Nursing and Medicine to train health care workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help combat the outbreak in Liberia.

Bloomberg School experts also assisted in the Ebola response by connecting caregivers with resources, coordinating behavioral interventions and advising UNICEF and health ministries on managing the outbreak and rebuilding health systems. The School’s Center for Communication Programs helped to develop lifesaving behavior change messaging for the public.

Now that the Ebola epidemic is out of the headlines, although far from over, the challenge is to ensure that the lessons learned will inform strategies to prevent and control similar crises in the future.

Bloomberg School research, for example, indicates that the singular focus on combatting Ebola could seriously compromise the fight against other deadly diseases, such as measles.

Justin Lessler, PhD ’08, MHS ’08, MS, an assistant professor of Epidemiology who specializes in advanced computer modeling of the complexities of infectious diseases, co-authored a study in Science assessing the potential effect on measles.

“There simply are not enough health care effectively deal with this outbreak.”

David Peters, chair of the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School

During the height of the crisis in Monrovia, he says, up to half the health care facilities closed and many resources were diverted to combat Ebola. It’s believed people avoided going to those clinics that remained open for routine health care like vaccinations. 

“With diseases like Ebola, the lesson is we need to be preemptive,” Lessler says. “In the future, I think the best thing we can do is to strengthen the overall health care system year-round, even when there isn’t a crisis, so that when a crisis does flare, we are ready to meet it, while not compromising care in other areas.”

For more, visit the Dean’s Symposium on Ebola: Crisis, Context and Response and Justin Lessler’s findings in Science.