Few people get a chance to speak directly with someone who’s seen the effects of Ebola in West Africa today.
Students in the Earhart-Edison Exploration Academy at North Hall Middle School had a chance Wednesday to speak with Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, scientific adviser for public affairs for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McQuiston spent October and November of last year in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where she aided in the CDC’s efforts to treat, control and prevent the spread of Ebola.
“We are very, very excited for this special opportunity,” said Kathy Mellette, instructor for the academy. “Truly, I think this is the most excited I’ve been in my 20-something years of teaching. To have such a specialist, scientist and mom here, we are just thankful for her time.”
McQuiston has a degree in veterinary medicine and expertise in bioterrorism preparedness, disease surveillance, epidemiology and more. She’s worked for the CDC for 16 years and lives in Atlanta with her husband and two daughters.
Her expertise in veterinary medicine has proven helpful in the fight against Ebola.
“Three out of every four diseases that humans can get originate in animals,” McQuiston said. “So a veterinarian like me can really work from the bottom of an outbreak up. We can study it in animals to try to determine what happens in people.”
Ebola originates in bats, according to McQuiston, who gave the students a brief history of the origins of the virus in Africa.
She reminded students there have only been four cases of Ebola in the U.S. and therefore they have no reason to worry about contracting the disease themselves.
“A lot of very smart grown-ups were afraid when they heard Ebola was in the United States,” she said. “But the truth of the matter is, where we really need to be afraid of Ebola is in Africa where it starts. Until we control it over there, we’re going to continue to have a risk of it being brought into the U.S. by travelers. That’s one of the reasons I went.”
McQuiston said she wasn’t sent to Sierra Leone to work in an Ebola hospital, but to communicate with the locals and help them understand how they are spreading the virus.
She said many people there are afraid to “turn in” a family member who shows symptoms, so they keep the relative hidden in the home. McQuiston said not only does this diminish the person’s ability to survive, but it increases the likelihood the rest of the family will get the virus.
The burial traditions in West Africa have also contributed to the outbreak of the virus, which is spread when someone comes in contact with the bodily fluids of a person showing symptoms.
“Because it’s such a resource-poor country, families end up taking care of the bodies after somebody dies,” she said. “The way they show respect to their loved ones is they wash the bodies, make sure it’s clean, wrap it in a white cloth and stand over and pray over the body. Many people will even come touch the body to show respect.”
McQuiston said this is a tradition that dates back thousands of years, but it can contribute to the spread of the virus. In some cases, locals were even using the water from the burial to sprinkle on those in attendance at the funerals.
It can be hard for foreigners to educate locals in West Africa about the spread of Ebola, according to McQuiston. She also said it can be scary for locals to see foreigners in full protective gear working with Ebola patients.
But there is hope for controlling the current outbreak. The most successful way to treat Ebola, so far, is with water.
“You treat Ebola with water,” she said. “Lots and lots and lots and lots of water.”
Most Ebola patients now are given a water rehydration solution, she said, which is water with a little salt, a little sugar and a few other nutrients.
“It’s not a cure,” McQuiston said. “Water doesn’t kill the virus. What it does is keep the body going until the body itself mounts an immune response and that kills the virus. So water is important. It keeps the body alive.”