Ebola outbreak

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Mass. Doctor Who Beat Ebola To Return To Liberia

Former Ebola patient Dr. Richard Sacra at a September news conference in Nebraska. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Former Ebola patient Dr. Richard Sacra at a September news conference in Nebraska. (Nati Harnik/AP)

The Massachusetts doctor who beat Ebola plans to return to Liberia, where he contracted the deadly virus, in order to help overworked colleagues in the missionary hospital where he has worked for years.

Dr. Rick Sacra, 52, of Holden, said Monday he won’t be working directly with Ebola patients but might be asked to help from time to time, since doctors say he’s now immune. He departs Thursday.

“The medical staff is a little bit reduced. They’ve been working very hard and frankly they need a little bit of a breather,” he said at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he is an assistant professor. “I just feel the need to return to hopefully give them a break so they don’t burn out.”

But Sacra said he has no interest in testing his immunity and promised to follow all the necessary Ebola safety protocols.

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Partners In Health: In Ebola-Stricken Nations, People Are Dying — But From Other Illnesses Too

In this Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014 file photo, a man suffering from the Ebola virus lies on the floor outside a house in Port Loko Community, situated on the outskirts of Freetown, in Sierra Leone. (Michael Duff/AP)

In this Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014 file photo, a man suffering from the Ebola virus lies on the floor outside a house in Port Loko Community, situated on the outskirts of Freetown, in Sierra Leone. (Michael Duff/AP)

Among the groups on the forefront in the international effort to address the Ebola crisis in West Africa is Boston-based Partners in Health (PIH). The group is promising to keep staff and volunteers in Liberia and Sierra Leone for several more years to fight Ebola and address other public health concerns in those countries.

Helping to lead the PIH initiative is chief nursing officer Sheila Davis, who returned to Boston earlier this month and remains largely confined to her home in Roslindale.

She joins Morning Edition Wednesday to talk about how the ongoing crisis reveals how vital public health infrastructures are.

Interview Highlights

Sheila Davis: Many times more people are dying, not because of Ebola, but because of this weakened health system. So even the facilities that have been open to provide care for other things — such as malaria, safe child birth — those in most counties are closed. So more people are dying, because they’re not being able to get health care for other, non-Ebola reasons.

A lot of the attention to both countries has been just treating the acute Ebola. But, if we don’t work at the same time to build up this system, we’re going to see these acute outbreaks or hotspots for quite a long time.

On whether PIH had any idea how serious the Ebola outbreak would become: 

SD: I don’t think we did. The first cases we heard about in probably March, April or May. Like all of the other previous Ebola outbreaks, the thought was it would show up and it would be quickly gone and a few hundred cases would be there worldwide, and we would stop hearing about it very quickly.

And then, during the summer, when we were hearing more and more about cases being found in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, we had two smaller nonprofits that we worked with in those areas, and we had been in contact with them. And they, as well as the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone, asked us to come in and help.

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Related:

Ebola Forecast: What To Expect Now And How To Contain Future Outbreaks

(European Commission DG ECHO via Compfight/Flickr)

(European Commission DG ECHO via Compfight/Flickr)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

A digital surveillance program used Twitter feeds and news headlines to pick up on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a full nine days before the World Health Organization proclaimed it an epidemic. 

But that doesn’t mean the outbreak could have been prevented.

Dr. Alessandro Vespignani, a professor of computer science and physics at Northeastern University, uses network science to model and forecast the spread of disease. Like HealthMap, the online tool cited above, Vespignani’s computer simulations cannot anticipate an outbreak before it actually begins.

“They don’t have a crystal ball either,” he says. “HealthMap is really a novel way of doing disease surveillance that can provide a real edge in the early detection of outbreaks by monitoring news articles, journals, Twitter or other digital sources. But they can’t do this before the actual occurrence of the event. There was already a situation in West Africa. HealthMap was just able to pick up the anomaly before anyone else.”

As the death toll climbs over 1,000 in West Africa, I was curious to know what makes this particular outbreak so relentless and what the global community can do to contain its spread. My conversation with Dr. Vespignani, lightly edited:

First of all, what exactly are big data and network science research? And how do you use them to track disease outbreaks?

We create large-scale models for disease forecasting by creating a synthetic world in the computer that integrates all data about human mobility. Then we plug an infectious individual into the model and look at the spread of the disease. You can look at different levels of granularity—whether locally or internationally. Network science is important because most disease now spreads by human mobility. What you hear many times is, “We’re all one hop away from West Africa,” although it’s thousands of kilometers away. No one has a crystal ball, so we cannot say when there will be an Ebola disease outbreak. As soon as we have the data on the outbreak, what we can do is try understanding how it will evolve in the next few weeks or months, which is what we do with this modeling.
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