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You (yes, YOU) play a key role in changing the culture of outbreak response

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

By Lara Salahi Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic

Scientists have known for decades that a pandemic is looming. Their prediction has been accurate - that the contagion would spread easily and fast.

While they have not been able to predict the name of the pathogen, it is not surprising that the spread of COVID-19 is near identical to what has been anticipated.

An infectious disease outbreak in any part of the world is extraordinarily challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is that pathogens do not adhere to manmade borders. Nor do they distinguish based on religion, ethnicity, or nationality. With increased urbanization and other major environmental changes, we, collectively, as humans are all susceptible to an outbreak that emerges from any part of the world.

We know for certain that we are yet again amid what Dr. Pardis Sabeti and I have termed as outbreak culture. Outbreak culture -- which is also the name of our book -- is the mindset that emerges as an outbreak begins to take hold in a region, or even around the world.

Outbreak culture can manifest itself in actions based on fear, an instinct to protect oneself or others, or the desire to capitalize during a crisis. Outbreak culture has been experienced during every major disease outbreak in the past, and this one is no different.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of this current outbreak, but we still have the power to change its course.

Our true heroes are our outbreak responders and you play an important role in their response. One main consideration at this point is to protect those who are protecting us. Our front-line health workers are at great risk for infection. Our health care system does not have the capacity to handle the influx of projected cases. Delivery, effective and universal use of diagnostic testing and personal protective equipment should be prioritized.

Here’s how we can help: We can practice good hygiene and social distancing to protect the vulnerable and prevent overwhelming our hospitals. I know social distancing in some places has meant more than just limiting close contact of friends or loved ones; it’s led to the closing of businesses, schools, and a major shift in our way of life. We know there are longer term social and economic consequences that communities will need to overcome, and there’s an argument to be made that we can safeguard vulnerable members of our community without having to shut down society. As our book illustrates, taming any major outbreak has never been simple.

Right now social distancing might feel more than just uncomfortable, but scientists calculate that our vigilance is part of what can make a real difference.

Outbreaks are a crucible, a melding of forces brought together in an intense pressure-filled environment. While the situation is often unclear and rapidly evolving, the scenario provides a test of human response to unpredictability. Everyone -- from scientists, doctors and nurses, to teachers, parents, and you -- has a critical role to play in outbreaks. Collectively, our actions can change the culture of outbreak response from fear to one of empowerment.

Lara Salahi, Assistant Professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, is co-author of the book, Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis and the Next Epidemic, which sheds light on pandemics and the response to outbreaks. Lara Salahi is an award-winning journalist and television producer for multiple outlets, including ABC News. She was part of the team at the Boston Globe awarded a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for its exhaustive and empathetic coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Pardis Sabeti is Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. A member of the Broad Institute and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Sabeti was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, a National Geographic Society Emerging Explorer, and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2015. She is also the recipient of an NIH New Innovator Award and a Richard Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences.


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