By Natalia Ivaniv

As the closing event to this year’s Politics at the Pub speakers’ series, CIC Winnipeg welcomed Dr. James Strong M.D., head of Diagnostics & Therapeutics, Special Pathogens Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada, who spoke on the challenges of global infectious diseases, with special focus on the most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where he was directly engaged.

As a member of the World Health Organization and the Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network, Dr. Strong’s journey began in 2014 at the crossroads between Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where the team managed to track down “patient zero”, a young child who succumbed after playing in a hollow tree. Once there, they provided field laboratory diagnostic support and were able to save the lives of many, making a difference in the communities plagued by Ebola, a disease Strong and other experts believe may well have originated in fruit bats.

These feats did not come without their challenges, however. One of the daily trials faced by these researchers was the danger of exposure, whether from direct contact through needle stick injuries to indirect infections through lack of general awareness and education, and these challenges went beyond the confines of the clinics. Daily struggles were felt throughout the demoralized communities and while they witnessed joyful ceremonies when a patient became symptom-free and could rejoin the village, Strong said that men seemed to always be welcomed back while women were far too often ostracized by their peers. The Ebola outbreak also flushed large sums of money into these fragile local economies, thus inflating them and adding to the burden of daily living. Locals who worked at the clinic as cooks or cleaners were reluctant to report sick for fear of losing their income.

Dr. Strong was very positive about the efforts of the global community to help contain the Ebola outbreak although the world was late in its response. He had special praise for the work by Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who first alerted the world to the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak and for maintaining the clinics after the crisis subsided so as not to create a boom-and-bust economic bubble. Aid, he said, is always important, but smart allocation of it is the key to overcoming these types of outbreaks. Isolation, according to Strong, is never the answer and we must educate all individuals to keep themselves protected as well as those around them. Indeed, in spite of the mortality rates – up to 70 per cent for the Ebola virus, Strong and his colleagues are less concerned about Ebola, or a similar epidemic, arriving on our shores, and have turned their concerns to other global infectious diseases, especially the evolution of treatment-resi stant pathogens in North America.

The CIC is a non-partisan, member-based council whose mandate is to promote greater public understanding of current global issues and to encourage open dialogue on Canada’s role in the world. Via its Politics in the Pub series, CIC Winnipeg features informed and engaging speakers in a relaxed atmosphere. Events are free and all are welcome.