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Ebola’s After-Effects

Measles and other diseases thrive after West Africa’s epidemic.

Story by Andrew Myers • Photography by Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post, Courtesy of Photoshare

As Ebola raged through West Africa throughout 2014, the international community rose to the challenge in remarkable fashion. However, new Bloomberg School research indicates that singular focus on Ebola could seriously compromise the fight against other deadly diseases, such as measles.

Justin Lessler, PhD ’08, MHS ’08, MS, an assistant professor of Epidemiology who specializes in advanced computer modeling of the complexities of infectious diseases, recently co-authored a study published in Science assessing the downstream effects of the Ebola response on measles.

During the height of the crisis in Monrovia, he says, up to half the health care facilities closed and many resources were diverted to combat Ebola. It’s believed people avoided going to those clinics that remained open.

“As a result, lots of kids who would normally get vaccinated didn’t,” Lessler says

The paper’s main analysis, based on computer models, demonstrates that for every month Ebola churns on, the number of children susceptible to measles increases by 20,000. Ebola ran rampant for more than a year, opening a huge opportunity for the disease.

“Disruptions in health care systems may have as much impact on human health as the disease itself,” Lessler says. “But measles can be dealt with relatively cheaply, so it is a place we can have immediate impact.”

The statistical models like those he and others develop provide an invaluable tool in public health, allowing decision makers to quickly weigh the consequences of the many and difficult choices put before them—research that could be germane not only to measles but to other killer diseases, like cholera, for instance.

Statistical and mathematical models can help define what the real threats are, how uncertain the estimates of their impact are, where hidden risks might lurk, the consequences of different approaches and, most importantly, how best to deploy limited resources, his studies show. With regard to cholera, Lessler’s team is working to better understand how to effectively use limited vaccine supplies.

“With diseases like Ebola, the lesson is we need to be preemptive,” Lessler says. “In the future, I think the best thing we can do is to strengthen the overall health care system year-round, even when there isn’t a crisis, so that when a crisis does flare, we are ready to meet it, while not compromising care in other areas.”

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