Guests and students at the UI address Ebola


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How to keep Ebola contained in Dallas may be the talk of the nation this week.

Here on the University of Iowa campus, however, a world-renowned epidemiologist suggested the real challenge is not on U.S. soil, but rather in western Africa.

The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who helped eradicate smallpox in the late-70s, William Foege, spoke Thursday at the UI addressing the issue. He is this year’s recipient of the UI College of Public Health’s Hansen Leadership Award.

“My question was, ‘Is Ebola the new face of public health?’ And my answer is no, it’s the old face coming back,” Foege said. “It’s just what our ancestors experienced as they worried about smallpox and yellow fever and other things they didn’t quite understand, but they worried what’s going to happen to them.”

Foege said through his decades of experience, the range of public-health issues has expanded from viruses to chronic disease, injury, and the social determinacy of health.

“The first problem is that if you contain a person, put them in quarantine, you have to provide everything they need, food and water,” Foege said. “But you also have to provide them salary because these people have families to take care of.”

The CDC has reported 7,157 cases, one in the United States. Many experts remain optimistic about the containment of Ebola in the United States, but they are concerned about the unpredictability of the West African outbreak.

“I don’t expect it to spread in the U.S. I think we’ll contain each case as it comes, but it’s going to require a lot of resources in concentration to make that happen,” Foege said. “I worry about the spread in Africa. It is truly out of control.”

Sue Curry, dean of the UI College of Public Health, who listened to Foege’s speech at the public-health school, said the event was beneficial to the university community.

“This was a transformative visit, and [it’s] really exciting to have someone of Dr. Foege’s stature,” she said. “For me, the most wonderful part was his ability to hone in on the future generation of public-health professionals and provide really tangible advice about how to create a career that speaks to your dreams and your passions.”

Currently at the UI, one graduate student is bringing attention to the international issue as well.
Grant Brown, a doctoral candidate in biostatistics, is developing software to predict the spread of the disease, which he calls the Spatial SEIR Model.

“[The SEIR] models can be used to address questions of public-health intervention efficacy,” Brown said. “For example, knowledge of the date a particular intervention began can be used to estimate the associated change in disease spread from that point onward.”

SEIR represents the four individual states of Ebola victims: those who are susceptible, exposed, infectious, and removed: dead, quarantined, or survivors. Brown said the software would be applicable for many diseases.

“Spatial SEIR[s] models are a good fit for epidemics which involve pathogen spread from person to person and which have a latent period before people become infectious,” Brown said. “They can accommodate diseases which provide only temporary immunity, such as influenza.”

UI Associate Professor Jacob Oleson, Brown’s supervising professor, said the software can be used in more practical and versatile ways than other predictive software.

“We wanted to create something that was faster and user friendly,” Oleson said. “So the software that he’s developing can be used by others [who can] put the data and the types of things that they want to be able to estimate.”

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