Ebola halts program in Ghana, shines light on UO-based disaster resilience network

INRB Lab workers in Kinshasa with a diagnostic kit for use in the field
INRB Lab workers in Kinshasa with a diagnostic kit for use in the field

Ebola in Africa prompted the University of Oregon to cancel an AHA Study Abroad program on global health and development only weeks before its fall debut. And growing concern about the deadly disease also is raising the profile of the UO-hosted Disaster Resilient Universities network that is devoted to emergency management.

Seven undergraduate students  six from the UO  had enrolled for the 15-week study abroad program in Accra, Ghana, which was to include classroom courses and internships in non-profit facilities, including health clinics and a tropical disease research institute. Over the summer, however, the Ebola crisis spread, and Ghana, spared so far from the outbreak, agreed to be a staging area for international relief efforts.

With the brewing uncertainty, UO officials from the Office of International Affairs, AHA International, emergency and risk management, and others gathered to discuss potential threats to the Ghana program.

"We took into account the possibility of students getting trapped if borders closed or if a case in Ghana would put them at risk for infection, especially via their internship placements," said UO biologist and neuroscientist Janis Weeks, who helped design program, which was especially geared for students pursuing science degrees. "Our top priority is always the safety of the students, especially for a first experience in Africa. There were too many unknowns."

Janis WeeksWeeks was to travel to Accra from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she had helped conduct an International Brain Research Organization workshop with regional university faculty, to teach a one-week intensive course. Ebola, she said, would have been a focus.

"It is just horrible," said Weeks, an expert on infectious tropical diseases. "I spend a lot of time in Africa. I love the people and the communities there. Even in the most disadvantaged areas, I have only been treated well. The thought of all these people having to deal with this and watching family members die is just horrifying."

Higher Education Networking

Disaster Resilient Universities (DRU), an unfunded group-email network based at the UO, is tracking Ebola's impact on higher education, said Andre Le Duc, executive director of the UO Enterprise Risk Services and director of the Emergency Management and Continuity program, whose office provided information used in the decision to cancel the Ghana trip.

The DRU network is a group email list dedicated to peer-to-peer collaboration with the goal of making campuses more disaster resilient. DRU was born in 2000 after Disaster Resistant Universities  an initiative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency  was cut by the Bush Administration. DRU began with 35 subscribers but now has some 1,200 members at more than 900 institutions.

"We had learned a lot from the tracking we implemented for H1N1," Le Duc said, referring to efforts documenting universities' response to the respiratory illness, a pig-associated flu that mutated to infect humans in 2009, sparking a pandemic. "We set up Ebola tracking so that if the outbreak does take off more widely we will have a system in place, and through our DRU network we can start grabbing true situational awareness as it's happening."

The tracking allows universities to submit documentation about actions they have taken related to Ebola.

"The Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and others have put out some standard protocols for dealing with Ebola," Le Duc said. "Our intent with the tracking is to share peer-to-peer and institution-to-institution communications about what people are saying and how they are addressing the issue. It can help by providing language to use or to help verify the effectiveness of what an institution may be planning to do."

In collaboration with the International Association of Emergency Managers, through the University & College Caucus, DRU includes archival material and allows for workshops and course development for university emergency and risk management. Deployment of resources, such as experienced disaster responders, also can be arranged to help institutions in a disaster situation.

Higher Education and Business

Andre Le Duc

Le Duc's leadership role led to an invitation to speak Sept. 11 at the World Reconstruction Conference 2 about keeping businesses going after disasters strike. The event, organized by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the World Bank, was held in Washington, D.C. The Ebola crisis, Le Duc said, permeated the conference.

"We ended up talking about how we may be able integrate what we are now doing in higher education with other systems, including how to protect vital research, including research on ways to combat Ebola across the globe," he said. "If a fire, earthquake, power failure or pandemic occurs, preparedness and responses are important to maintaining academic and research continuity. The idea is to promote organizational resilience in any potential situation."

The Ebola issue, he added, also prompted discussions about building community resilience.

"Unfortunately, it's a human condition where we have to have a disaster happen before we change," Le Duc said. "What we're trying to do with DRU is say: Don't wait; learn from others. All the research points to the fact that common things happen no matter the situation. The three tenants of resilience are leadership and culture, how ready are you are for change, and how strong are your networks."

The conference session also led to an invitation for Le Duc to tell DRU's story to a private foundation in New York.

by Jim Barlow, Public Affairs Communications