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Ebola doctor: ‘Tremendous strides’ in stemming the outbreak

January 21, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Dr. Pranav Shetty, global emergency health coordinator for International Medical Corps, was hailed by President Obama in his State of the Union address as an embodiment of the effort to roll back the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In August, Shetty went to Liberia to help establish and oversee two treatment units and a training center for health workers. He joined Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: taking stock of the continuing battle against the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa, from a leading worker and organizer who was there early on, and is about to return with an evolving mission.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ebola has killed more than 8,500 people since it began nearly a year ago, a major health emergency that’s brought out a major and often dangerous response effort from health workers.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama hailed Americans who’ve served on the front lines.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses, our health care workers are rolling back Ebola.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sitting with the first lady during the speech, Dr. Pranav Shetty served as the embodiment of that effort.

As global emergency health coordinator for the non-profit International Medical Corps, Shetty is more typically found in health hot spots around the world. In August, he went to Liberia to help establish and oversee two Ebola treatment units and a training center for health workers.

Shortly before going to the Capitol last night, and just days before leaving for Guinea to continue the work against Ebola, he came to our studio to talk.

Dr. Pranav Shetty, welcome to you.

DR. PRANAV SHETTY, International Medical Corps: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it fair to say that the worst-case scenario of the spinning out of control has been avoided at this point?  Can we say that?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: I think that what we can say is that tremendous strides have been made in addressing this response.

The worst-case scenario, as you referred to, was predicated on the fact that nothing was done and that we were at the state we were, especially in Liberia, you know, several, several months ago. And so now I think what we have seen is because of the strength and the speed of the response, you know, and the big push that occurred, I think that we have hopefully turned a corner and passed the worst, and now we really need to focus on finishing the job there in West Africa.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were even stories recently in The Washington Post, for example, about the U.S.-built treatment centers in Liberia that are mostly empty now.

The question is, was it too late or did they do their job and things have turned a corner?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Yes.

I think what they did, is they did do their job. I think to address this type of outbreak, we need to hit it hard and we need to hit it fast. And that’s what we did from the U.S. government. And International Medical Corporation was one of these agencies and we responded as quickly as we can and as aggressively as we can.

And because of that, I think we stemmed the tide of this entire outbreak.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about in Liberia itself, the government, the people, the population?  To the extent things are better, do we know why?  Did they respond well and did they learn what was happening?  What happened?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Definitely.

I think the community involvement and the local involvement is key to addressing this type of outbreak because every aspect of the pillars of the response that need to occur is rooted in community buy-in and leadership, from safe and effective burials to community tracing to contact tracing, through surveillance, through isolation. It’s all rooted in the community, and so the social mobilization campaigns that really went forward with the building of the treatment centers and all the other more visible parts of the response was really a key factor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so where are the biggest needs now as this has involved?  What do you see?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Well, the biggest needs now have to do with reconstructing the health system and getting to zero at the same time.

So at International Medical Corps, we have three pillars in our response. One is around the isolation and case management, which is helping to get to zero, because until we get to zero cases, we can’t say that we have won the war against Ebola in West Africa.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but let me stop you there. Is that possible, to get to zero?  And how long a time period would you think we’re looking at?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Well, we do think it’s possible.

I think the response has shown so far that we can make tremendous strides. And it’s the last little part now in the last little leg that we need to make the strong push to do so. And so continued focus and continued attention that is predicated on the tenets of the response that we have seen so far is very, very important and crucial to really getting to zero, as you mentioned.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then I interrupted. You were talking about the health infrastructures, the other leg of this, which was devastated through all of this, right?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Exactly. Definitely.

The health system in Liberia essentially collapsed when Ebola was first seen there and then went out of control. And so we’re starting with a very fragile health system to begin with. And so adding on the components specifically targeted towards Ebola, as you mentioned, about isolation, and then adding on the training component, which is training for Ebola, as well as for any other infectious disease outbreak that may occur in the region, as well as health system strengthening and health system reactivation, is very, very important.

And so the international community and International Medical Corps is very committed to working in each of these three pillars.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re going back to Guinea?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Guinea, that’s correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s because you see more happening there, more needs there?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Well, I think what we’re seeing is that, in Guinea in particular, there hasn’t been a huge spike in cases that we have seen in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but we have also not seen a tremendous decline as well over the same time period.

We know that, in Guinea, there is some issues with resistance, especially within the rural areas. And so this requires a more nuanced approach, a more adaptive approach that will have to be more flexible and address the needs geographically that are spread out across the country. And so we’re going to assess these needs and then respond as best we can.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is a lot going on in the world, right?  Are you worried that people are no longer paying as much attention to this?

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Well, I think what the focus we need to do on is helping people understand that this fight is not over.

You know, we really need to put the resources and the financial human resources infrastructure behind us to really get to the point that we have zero cases, because this outbreak was started by one case and it can start again, unless we put all of our focus and attention on stamping it out now, now that we have made so much strides in the right direction and to finish the job.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Pranav Shetty of the International Medical Corps, thank you so much.

DR. PRANAV SHETTY: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.

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