Just as fast as the fear of Ebola has been traveling, so has misleading information and confusion about the decision of the USF St. Petersburg to cancel the Murrow Program. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to address myths, assess risks and weigh facts.
The 2014 Murrow Fellows include journalists from Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, South Sudan, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Eleven of the 13 countries have had no reported cases of Ebola. Participants from these countries posed zero risk to our campus. Nigeria had a handful of cases, but has now been declared “Ebola-free” after no cases were reported for over six weeks. In fact, amid the chaos and distress, the World Health Organization is commending both Nigeria and Senegal as positive examples of how to deal with the virus.
Liberia and Sierra Leone, on the other hand, are at the heart of the current outbreak. One might ask: what about the two visitors from these countries? Traveling from a country where the Ebola outbreak has not yet been contained does not alone make someone a risk. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, there have been 7,659 total confirmed cases of Ebola. The combined population of these nations is over 10 million, meaning the Ebola-infected people represent 0.07 percent of the total population. If the invited journalists from Liberia and Sierra Leone have had no contact with people infected with Ebola, they posed zero risk to our campus.
But what if the invited visitors from Ebola-affected countries had been exposed to people with the virus? After all, journalists, much like healthcare workers, often find themselves on the front lines covering news stories and are at increased risk. And as I pointed out in an opinion I wrote for the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 20, the virus’ unpredictable nature should never be taken lightly.
What if we assume journalists from Liberia and Sierra Leone were exposed to Ebola, became sick and nonetheless decided to travel? They would still be screened multiple times before entering the U.S. Screenings are imperfect. And an infected person might not present symptoms until arriving in St. Petersburg, given the Ebola incubation period, which is 21 days.
For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has started to monitor anyone coming from an Ebola-affected country. Additionally, they provide factual information to faculty and students returning to campus after a visit to an Ebola-affected country. Everyone on campus should go to the site and learn about the details, but here is an important detail for the sake of this current debate:
“Monitor your health for 21 days. During the time that you are monitoring your health, if you have no symptoms, you can continue your normal activities, including work and school. If you get symptoms of Ebola, it is important to stay separated from other people and to call your doctor right away.”
Ebola is transmitted when one comes in contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is symptomatic. Traveling from an Ebola-affected country makes careful health monitoring important. It doesn’t mean an individual shouldn’t participate in campus activities.
The likelihood of Ebola coming to USFSP is minute. Still, there is some chance. Would the consequences be so catastrophic that the risk is not worth taking? In the U.S., there have been nine cases of Ebola. One person has died, six are now “virus-free,” and two are recovering, including a doctor in New York City who recently returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea.
In a statement released on Oct. 17, Han Reichgelt, the regional vice-chancellor for academic affairs, said that the virus is fatal for more than 50 percent of the people who have been infected. However, Ebola’s fatality rate is so high in part because the virus is prevalent in countries with inadequate health infrastructures.
The university decided to cancel the program believing that even a minuscule chance of infection was too great. In an interview with the Tampa Tribune, Reichgelt said that “faculty and students still weren’t comfortable,” even after the State Department decided to postpone the trip for the journalists from Liberia and Sierra Leone. How faculty and students were consulted during the weekend is an open question.
It’s been over a week since the announcement, and I think the university has continued to miss valuable opportunities to educate the student body about the real likelihood of contracting the disease.
Fortunately, there has been an alternate solution and I believe all will end well. The journalists will be hosted by our neighbors at the Poynter Institute. I hope all of my fellow USFSP students can confidently and comfortably welcome these visiting journalists to St. Petersburg if their paths should cross around town. The debate can continue, but the most important thing is that these visitors don’t feel singled out or ostracized.