Faculty and staff weigh in on Ebola outbreak

An open forum on Ebola addresses some concerns over the recent string of cases

“Can I tell you an Ebola joke?” TRU professor Michael Mehta began. “You probably won’t get it.”

All joking aside, that was the consensus last Thursday when a panel of speakers offered their expertise at TRU’s public open forum on Ebola. The panel included TRU World’s managing director and five TRU faculty, including instructors from the nursing, journalism and history programs.

(Ryan Turcot/The Omega)

The Ebola open forum panel addresses audience questions. From left to right: John Hart, Wendy McKenzie, Michelle Funk, Mike Henniger, Charles Hays, and Florriann Fehr. (Ryan Turcot/The Omega)

Mehta began the forum by arguing that, “while the Ebola epidemic spreads and 5,000 people die in central and western Africa, fear-based decision-making is running amuck in countries like Canada and the U.S.”

To help alleviate some of this fear, TRU World managing director Mike Henniger spoke as the first of six panelists, addressing the public concern that an international student from an affected country could carry Ebola to Kamloops.

“Right now, TRU doesn’t have students coming from the affected regions, which makes things a lot easier from the get-go,” Henniger said.

He also mentioned that international students are required to pass a medical exam to obtain a Canadian study permit, and that they cannot legally study in Canada without one.

TRU also monitors staff, faculty and TRU-sanctioned student travel to identify and prevent people from going to Ebola-affected regions, though Henniger acknowledged “somebody could still go on [a personal] vacation and we wouldn’t know that.”

In September, an international student did plan to travel to an affected region to visit family, but voluntarily cancelled the trip when TRU identified a risk in a submitted travel report.

Henniger explained that international students are required to pay into a provincial Medical Services Plan (MSP) after their third month of studies, but can opt out of the expense to save money while they travel home. In the process of doing so, TRU requires the students to submit travel plans.

TRU also has pandemic plans drafted for diseases like the H1N1 flu virus, and would prepare a similar one for Ebola should the disease become a bigger threat in Canada. As a last resort, TRU has the power to implement mandatory deferrals to prevent students from affected areas to coming to campus.

“That’s something we really don’t want to do, and it would be a last case scenario,” Henniger said.

Nursing instructors Florriann Fehr and Wendy McKenzie spoke to concerns that nursing students and practicing nurses may have about being in a profession that could expose them to health risks like Ebola.

“Unfortunately, 10 to 15 per cent of nurses that come into contact with clients also catch Ebola, and that’s sad for our profession,” Fehr said.

“I’ve had some students and colleagues come up to me and ask some pretty tough questions. ‘If I’m a nurse, do I have to take care of a patient who has Ebola? If I refuse, will I get fired? What if I get quarantined?’” she said.

Fehr does insist that abandoning a patient goes against a nurse’s duty to practice, but also explained “there are some fabulous policies to protect you if you ask these questions.”

Students and practicing nurses with concerns can contact the College of Registered Nurses of BC, and Fehr believes they should.

“If you are not prepared, if you are not properly trained, or if there isn’t a system in place to keep you and your clients safe, then you are not fit to practice [on an Ebola patient]. You have to be mentally ready. You have to be in the right mind and heart to do this.”

The B.C. government has also set up an Ebola preparedness task force to ensure that health care professionals receive the proper training and mental preparation.

When journalism instructor Charles Hays spoke, he argued that “the voices with the expertise to assess the [Ebola] problem in an informed way are getting lost in the noise that the media is creating.”

Hays explained that journalists generally report on issues that are unique and current, and in doing so issues like Ebola can appear more threatening than they really are.

“You are more likely to get lung cancer than Ebola, even if you don’t smoke,” Hays said.

Michelle Funk, who also teaches in TRU’s School of Nursing, explained that there are cultural sensitivities that can affect how Ebola is fought overseas. In August, for example, the Liberian government began enforcing the cremation of deceased Ebola victims to kill the virus residing in the corpses. Cremation offends the cultural beliefs of many Liberians and, in response, some have shunned Ebola treatment centers.

John Hart, a TRU historian, concluded the forum by sharing his personal experiences with past disease outbreaks in Canada, including polio, tuberculosis and smallpox.

“I lived through the polio epidemic, and I remember it vividly. I can’t even explain how awful it was for everyone.”

Ebola, in comparison, is not as big of a threat, Hart said. Like Ebola, however, he explained that the worst part about the polio outbreak “was the fear that you were going to catch it.” He admits that the hype around polio also made it seem like a bigger risk than it was.

“TRU needs to develop a dialogue on a regular basis. The Ebola forum was a trial run of a platform for looking at these kinds of things. I would like to create a regular risk forum that deals with risk issues in a timely way as they emerge,” Mehta said in reflection of the forum.