The Division of Public Health of the University of Utah recently wrapped up a conference on leadership and community engagement in Ghana, Africa. The conference was focused on the prevention, and potential containment of Ebola, should the disease spread to the country.
Ebola tends to be one of those scary topics that brings with it a series of assumptions, a lack of professional knowledge amongst the general public, and for the most part, a lot of misinformation. All of this has been observable with the recent outbreaks of the infectious disease in Africa, and its spread to other continents including the Americas.
And if you think the amount of misinformation flying around a first-world country like the United States has been problematic, the issue is even more exacerbated in many of the countries in Africa, not only where the disease is actively spreading, but in countries where the disease has the potential to spread.
Scott Benson, Director of the Office of Global Public Health at the University of Utah, helped to present at the conference. His background in infectious diseases saw him providing information about the various aspects of Ebola, and more importantly dispelling many of the myths surrounding the disease.
“They had a lot of interesting questions that we had never even considered in our practice of treating Ebola, because they are living with it and will be living with it into the future,” Benson said.
For most people here in the United States the idea that a dangerously infectious disease like Ebola might be nothing more than a government conspiracy is something to be scoffed at. In Ghana, however, Benson said that it is a genuine concern, and yet one more myth regarding the disease that he had to dismiss.
“If you look at the places where Ebola started and spread, these are areas where the people living there had been victims of genocide in the past at the hands of the government,” Benson said. “So all of the sudden you have a disease that’s killing people, and the people are told to go to the [government-run] hospital for treatment, and then the people that go to the hospital with Ebola die, because 80% of people die [Ebola only has a 20% survival rate], and so for many it certainly seems that people are being told to go to the government to die.”
In order for proper measures to be taken to prevent Ebola from spreading it is exceedingly important for myths and speculation such as government genocide to be cleared away by leadership seminars such as the one in which Benson participated.
According to Benson, much of the conference revolved around not only the idea of establishing leadership and instilling principals of leadership within the attendees, but also providing them with information on how to prevent the spread of the disease.
While the treatment of Ebola involves a large amount of complicated and carefully quarantined medical processes, prevention is a largely community based initiative, Benson explained. The process of finding acceptable forms of community engagement in preventing the spread of the disease comes with a number of cultural hurdles that must be addressed.
“A lot of what we were doing was talking about the cultural issues these communities face,” Benson said. “I can’t come in and tell you what’s culturally appropriate for your community. I can tell you how the disease is spread, and then we can all work together to find appropriate ways to pay our respects to our elders and yet not spread the disease.”
With so many cultural differences between Ghana, and the United States, especially in regards to respect and tradition, the risk for infection if these practices are not addressed is significantly increased. Finding the balance between respecting local tradition, and implementing preventative measures is one that Benson said was a particularly interesting focal point for the conference, and something he had to take into consideration when answering questions.
“How do you continue to show the respect that you should for the elders in your community and yet temporarily abandon or change some of your cultural practices? Especially around funerals,” Benson said. “Even salutations, shaking hands, and greeting people; these are all ways that Ebola is spread, and so part of it is identifying how Ebola is spread, identifying the risk factors, and then coming up with culturally appropriate ways to show respect for family and elders in the community while reducing the risk of spreading the disease.”
The conference marks neither the first, nor the last efforts the University of Utah has made in Ghana, but instead acts as another aspect of the Division of Public Health’s research there.
The University of Utah has had a longstanding partnership with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, and has a number of programs for students interested in international study and research. Benson was highly enthusiastic about the opportunity these programs offer not only to students within the medical field, but any student interested in the work. The conference, which wrapped up in late November 2014, represents just one more expansion of the Division of Public Health’s work within Ghana as part of its international research work.
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