Learning from the Ebola Outbreak: South Plains Health Professionals Talk Infectious Disease

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On Tuesday over 150 health professionals filed into the Lubbock Civic Center, from public officials, to nurses, to fire fighters, to others in the health industry, all listened intently to speakers at a conference centered around the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

They discussed what Texas officials learned from the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and how they can mitigate other infectious outbreaks in the future.

While concerns about Ebola in the U.S. have fizzled since 2014, the Texas Department of State Health Services still believes there’s a lot to learn from how the country handled Ebola patients.

“I don’t think people realize how close we could have been and what that would have done to our hospital communities,” explained Gerald Parker, Ph.D. Associate Vice President of Public Health Preparedness and Response Texas A&M. Parker was appointed  to be the deputy director of the Texas task force formed to deal with the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Parker added that concerns for the Ebola virus are still ongoing, most recently over a recent flare-up in Guinea.

In an effort to stop other infectious outbreaks, the state of Texas is working to make coordinated plans of actions amongst health officials.

“It was only in October of 2014 that we were seeing all the Ebola cases here in the state of Texas, and when the state went to the legislature they actually gave us additional funding to have public health conferences to  keep these professionals together,” Katherine Wells, director or Public Health for the City of Lubbock.

Wells attended the conference in hopes of learning more about state reviews of the response to Ebola in 2014.

Tuesday’s conference was one of eight being led by the Department of State Health Services

“These threats are real, we cannot be complacent, we have to do much more in between outbreaks and in between attacks,” Parker said.

Parker believes local health officials in regions like the South Plains are on the frontlines of preventing major outbreaks.

State experts at the conference reminded attendees that West Texas certainly isn’t immune to outbreaks.

“You have an international airport here, a dangerous pathogen is only one plane ride away from somewhere in the world, or maybe a couple flights away, but it’s only a day, 24 hours away,” Parker said.

Parker added that over the last few decades contagious, naturally occurring diseases are becoming more common.

“The panhandle is isolated in some respects so immediate assistance from outside agencies, from outside assistance isn’t as quick as it might be from the Dallas, San Antonio or Houston areas,” explained David Gruber, assistant commissioner with Texas Department of State Health Services.

“I think the fact that Ebola was a buzz word, Zika is a buzz word now, I don’t think we should focus on the buzz words,” Gruber added. “What we need to do is make sure we have core capabilities in place so it doesn’t matter what the virus is, what the disease is, or whether it’s a natural event, we’re all working together.”

The state leaders at the conference also emphasized the importance of crisis leadership as well as the importance of forging strong connections between local, state, and federal officials before a crisis occurs.

“We do have to deal with the current threat that incudes Ebola still, that includes the potential threat of Zika,” Parker said. “But what’s next? Our systems have to be robust enough to handle those unknowns that are–no doubt–going to occur, whether they are naturally occurring or it’s an intentional attack.”

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