Ebola: Columbia Experts Step Up to Explain, Assure Wary Public

With Ebola news appearing in the headlines every day this fall, Columbia faculty and alumni have been at the forefront in describing the scientific and clinical aspects of the spread of the disease and the accompanying concerns.

As Columbia Medicine went to press, Ebola remained a fast-moving story. The CUMC Newsroom has compiled news media and online Ebola mentions that feature medical center faculty. The compilation, which uses Storify to collect Columbia-related Ebola articles, is updated regularly and can be viewed at http://bit.ly/CUMCEbola.

In October, Ebola came closer to home when assistant professor of medicine Craig Spencer, MD, was diagnosed with the disease within days of returning to New York after traveling to Africa with Doctors Without Borders to treat Ebola patients. Dr. Spencer is now virus-free and has been released from the hospital. “We applaud his brave service to humanity,” says EVP and Dean Lee Goldman, MD.

New York City health commissioner Mary Bassett, a 1979 P&S graduate and an associate professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, has led the city’s response to concerns about preparedness. Starting over the summer, the New York Times reported, the city health department has consulted with doctors in several cases of suspected infection. The city has been able to conduct its own tests for Ebola without sending samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Turnaround time on the tests is four to six hours.

Dr. Bassett fills the city health commissioner job once held by Thomas Frieden, a 1986 P&S graduate who is now director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Frieden, who also earned an MPH degree from Mailman, has been a fixture on news shows and in news articles since the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the United States.

Columbians frequently appearing in the news media to discuss Ebola include two Mailman School of Public Health faculty, one of whom also has an appointment in P&S. Stephen S. Morse, PhD, professor of epidemiology, and W. Ian Lipkin, MD, the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Mailman, have been interviewed by media outlets that range from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to Salon and Popular Mechanics. Dr. Lipkin also is professor of neurology and of pathology & cell biology in P&S.

Joan Bregstein, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at CUMC and director of community outreach at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, authored a blog post titled “What New Yorkers Need to Know about Ebola” for her blog, NYC Kids 911, a parent’s guide to pediatric emergencies. The blog is hosted by Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, the Department of Pediatrics, and the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine.

Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, a Mailman and P&S faculty member with considerable experience in preventing and treating AIDS in West Africa as director of ICAP at Mailman, has discussed how HIV and AIDS can teach responders about Ebola. “Survivors go on to become our most valuable allies in stemming the tide of this outbreak,” she said. Dr. El-Sadr is University Professor. See a related video at http://bit.ly/Ebola-diagnosis.

Virologist Vincent Racaniello, PhD, the Higgins Professor of Microbiology & Immunology, has discussed Ebola on his popular podcast, This Week in Virology (TWiV). In a Washington Post video animation, Dr. Racaniello showed how viruses, including Ebola, mutate.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, DPhil, assistant professor of medicine and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece on Oct. 12 about quarantine’s pitfalls despite reforms over several centuries.

Jeffrey L. Shaman, associate professor of environmental health sciences, uses computer models to forecast the future of the Ebola epidemic. He told NPR about the encouraging signs of a decline in new cases in Liberia.

A P&S graduate, William T. Close’51, is credited with playing an important role in controlling the first epidemic of the Ebola virus in central Africa in 1976. Dr. Close, who died in 2009, was personal physician to Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko, and chief doctor of the country’s army at the time of the epidemic, reported the New York Times in Dr. Close’s obituary. The epidemic caused widespread panic in the country, but three other doctors involved in helping to control it told the Times that Dr. Close’s connections, organizational ability, and medical expertise were essential in halting it. Dr. Close wrote four books, including two about Ebola, “Ebola” (1995) and “Ebola: Through the Eyes of the People” (2001).

The Mailman School of Public Health has compiled a set of facts about Ebola: http://www.mailman.columbia.edu/news/ebola-facts.