Professor: Ebola scare overblown

First Posted: 1/6/2015

BLUFFTON — How well does an auditorium full of college students at Bluffton University understand public health issues and, most importantly, Ebola? Ross Kaufmann, assistant professor of public health, was set to find out at the school’s most recent panel “Ebola and Fear.”

The current virus outbreak, which has taken more than 8,000 lives to date in multiple countries including the United States, started with a tree, a 2-year-old boy, and bats in a small village in Geukedou, Guinea. In two days, the boy was dead.

By the time patient zero died, Kaufman said, every milliliter of his blood contained 1 billion of the virus’ particles, which slowly destroyed each one of his body’s cells.

More than 50 percent of people who are infected with Ebola will die after experiencing symptoms such as a high fever, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.

The virus has had indirect consequences in the health care system; threatening workers, patients and causing economic collapses in severely affected countries. For example, Kauffman said, the World Bank reported that nearly half the people who were employed at the beginning of 2014 in Liberia are now jobless.

The illness has also created gaps in the social fabric of society, Kaufmann said. Hugs and handshakes are nonexistent in certain areas and more than 3,700 children in regions where Ebola is rampant are without parents or a family willing to take them in.

To put the effects of Ebola in perspective, Kaufmann invented his own public health version of the popular game show “The Price is Right.” Deemed “The Risk is Right,” Kaufmann’s version required contestants to apply their knowledge of public health to compare and develop a deeper understanding of current health issues.

The game, which involved about seven contestants overall, included topics that discussed obesity, tobacco use, heart disease, vaccinations and autoimmune diseases, small pox, chicken pox and polio. Contestants were asked, based on these topics, to gauge the number of people affected by different diseases or viruses compared to Ebola.

“I loved the way he presented it,” said Andrea Klein, a senior studying business administration and accounting at Bluffton University. “I wasn’t expecting it at all but I didn’t know a lot about [Ebola] going in. It helped me have a better understanding.”

Though some contestants were successful, winning movie tickets and gift cards to local shops, the large crowd learned illnesses such as malaria took more than 600,000 lives in 2012, that the polio virus still troubles three countries and small pox, which was eradicated in the 1960s, has killed millions of people in the 20th century.

Kaufman wanted to put the fear of Ebola into context.

“What are we responding to? What should we care about?” he asked, pointing out that public health efforts have already increased the average life span by 25 years.

“We ignore public health at our own peril,” he said. “But where does Ebola fall on the scale of things we should care about? Clearly, it’s a serious illness. But it becomes dwarfed by the more than 600,000 people who die from malaria every year. What’s worse is that these deaths were entirely preventable.”

Students such as Hannah Krull, a junior studying early childhood education at Bluffton University, agreed with Kauffman’s point of view, surprised other health issues aren’t at the front and center of public concern.

“We really should be focusing on other things,” Krull said.

Despite the all-to-common realization, Kauffman said more pressing public health concerns are continuing to lose the interest of the American public.

“Clearly, there are other issues we should be caring about that we have the potential to combat in a number of ways,” he said.

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