Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Enlisting for Moral Duty on Ebola's Front Line

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Enlisting for Moral Duty on Ebola's Front Line

Article excerpt

Chris Parr speaks to a researcher who joined West African relief efforts following 'moral challenge' issued by head of her institution

When the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told staff and students at the institution that they had a "moral responsibility" not only to study the Ebola virus but also to travel to Africa and help relief efforts, employees might have been forgiven had they responded with a polite "thanks, but no thanks".

Instead, the number of people wishing to take up the challenge made by Peter Piot, who was a member of the team that discovered the Ebola virus during its first known outbreak in 1976, currently stands at almost 500. At the time of writing, eight people from the institution have either been to the region already or are based there now.

One of the first academics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to land in West Africa was paediatrician Shunmay Yeung, senior lecturer in health economics and policy. She spent three weeks in Sierra Leone, where she was involved in setting up a new Ebola treatment centre in Kerry Town.

"There was a genuinely positive reaction to Peter's suggestion within the school," Dr Yeung told Times Higher Education. "I certainly felt like it was something I should do. I have skills I can use, and I have flexibility that others don't have. Peter's announcement gave those people who were thinking about it the permission and encouragement that they required."

Dr Yeung was charged with training volunteer doctors and nurses about the correct clinical procedures and the use of personal protective equipment, including how to remove it safely to avoid coming into contact with infected bodily fluids that might be on the exterior of the suit.

She also drilled volunteers in procedures for dealing with accidental exposure, such as how to react to a tear in the equipment or what clinicians should do if they were potentially exposed to the virus - for example if they got vomit or spit in their eyes.

Potential research opportunities

Despite the difficult nature of the work, Dr Yeung hopes to return to the centre in the new year to ensure that it is operating smoothly and to explore research possibilities.

"I didn't really go out with my research hat on," she said. "But it was really clear that there is so much we don't know [about containing an Ebola outbreak] that lends itself to creating an evidence base that would help us manage patients better and improve mortality in the future."

In addition to the opportunities such outbreaks provide for trialling new drugs and vaccines, "for which there is a research agenda", Dr Yeung believes that academics can also learn much about how such situations are managed clinically - and it is in this area that she hopes to investigate further.

"There are dilemmas about resuscitating, how much fluid you should use...how you get fluids into patients," she said. "You have to consider what is good for the health worker as well as the patient."

Dr Yeung is now considering how to prioritise a piece of research that can be turned around quickly, and then seek ethical approval to proceed. "The speed of things like [Ebola vaccine] drug trials made us realise that, in the research field, it is possible to get all this paperwork done really quickly if you really want to. …

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