Dr. Eilish Cleary talks about Ebola crisis, global health

Former provincial chief medical officer focus of Centre for International Studies event

Global health crises are intersections between medical science, inter-national aid, geopolitics and public reactions. One such event was the focus of a recent guest lecture coordinated by the Centre for International Studies (CIS). On Feb. 16, Dr. Eilish Cleary spoke about her involvement and experiences with the 2014 Ebola crisis. Cleary was New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health until last November, when she was controversially terminated from the position following allegations that her public health advocacy conflicted with the province’s corporate interests.

Cleary spoke about her involvement in the Ebola crisis and the challenges faced by public health officials in trying to contain it. She spent six months in west Africa during the crisis while working for the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but also working in parts of Nigeria. She co-ordinated and mobilized public health teams to contain the epidemic with the resources available to them. She said these countries had relatively poor public health infrastructures, a notable obstacle in managing the crisis.

Basic public health services are necessary to prevent outbreaks like these from happening in the future, said Cleary. She also said pre-existing conditions such as poor sanitation, limited access to clean drinking water, and crumbling public services and infrastructure exacerbated the Ebola epidemic. Despite the challenging realities of public health infrastructure and organization in Sierra Leone, Cleary praised the local health agencies’ responses. She gave examples of how members of the community were engaged to aid in safely disposing bodies, transporting samples to distant laboratories, and in the case of trained individuals, providing quality medical treatment.

Cleary said she condemned the global response to the epidemic and its excitement over treatments such as ZMapp, an experimental Ebola treatment with limited human evidence of success. She also said the international response wasted funds and time with conferences and bureaucracy, rather than allocating it more efficiently to on-the-ground resources.

Cleary ended her talk by giving a brief review on the recent Zika virus outbreak and its link to microcephaly. She said she was skeptical about the global response to it, but in turn provided insight to a complex and developing global health crisis.

“[The talk gave] a very different point of view than all the ones on the news. [It] opens your eyes a bit on the different aspects of dealing with a crisis of this magnitude and how slow politics and fear hinder the critical aid that these people need,” said Zacharie Maw, a third-year biochemistry student who attended the talk.

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