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Students Gain Insight into Current World Health Issues

Dr. Margaret Fitzgerald shares a photo of her colleagues in Liberia wearing PPE.
Dr. Margaret Fitzgerald, Director of Public Health of the HSE, shares a photo of her colleagues in Liberia wearing PPE.

With West Africa top of mind for many Fall 2014 voyagers, students got a unique experience to hear from someone who has served in an infected region.

Responding to a second call for assistance, Dr. Margaret Fitzgerald spoke to public health students after her trip to Liberia. Currently the Director of Public Health at Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE), she typically deals with issues of infectious disease, outbreak, and health protection within her own country. In 1991 she worked in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia and is familiar with the region, so she returned to lend a hand in dealing with the current Ebola epidemic. With her level of expertise and past experiences with infectious disease outbreak in Ireland, she was a perfect fit for the cause.

Focusing primarily on case definition and identification, she spent her days tracking and locating cases in the region. With population density being the largest issue facing the disease’s spread in Liberia, Dr. Fitzgerald helped prioritize the limited pool of doctors by first sending them to the densest areas with the greatest number of cases. She noted that another struggle she faced working to thwart the disease’s spread in Liberia was resources. “The treatment units on the day they were opened were filled,” she added. Working on the ground with people from around the world, the country is building treatment facilities as fast as possible.

After arriving, she joined many of her international colleagues from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to pool their knowledge and examine the best ways to work with the people of Liberia to solve this crisis. “Lots of collaboration [happening]. There’s an international response and a local response,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

With medical personnel familiar with the region being limited, her efforts had to not only serve patients but also monitor caregivers. The health of doctors on the ground was top of mind, so they can continue to serve the community and not aid the spread of the disease. She recalled having to check her own temperature 3-4 times per day and remain in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when in contact with symptomatic patients.

With the disease spiraling before many countries could prepare facilities or strategize solution, it will be a long road ahead for countries like Liberia. The collaboration on the ground has helped bring in new perspectives to develop effective outbreak measures. “Everything is not being done….Too little, too late,” she added.

Public health students actively listen to Dr. Fitzgerald's insights on Ebola.
Public health students actively listen to Dr. Fitzgerald’s insights on Ebola.

With a change in voyage itinerary earlier in the semester, many students on the ship have been following the issue closely. Public health students listening to Dr. Fitzgerald’s speech were both surprised and curious about her experiences. “She showed what’s really going on… It gave a way better perspective on how we should look at the disease,” said Cassie Jarvis, student from the University of Colorado.

Displaying photos from her experience and recounting specific challenges throughout her trip, Dr. Fitzgerald gave public health students a better understanding of the disease’s nature and conditions in Liberia, outside of what is presented by the media. Public health students felt they gained a new perspective and a thorough outline of the Ebola’s future risks. Queens University student Teryl Adam concluded, “People are thinking they are just painting the worse case scenario.”

  • Education

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