WSU Vancouver professor provides expertise on Ebola outbreaks

With the recent epidemic of Ebola in Africa reaching national attention and the first reported case in the United States making news around the world, more people are talking about Ebola than have been in years. Some have been making it their primary concern for decades, however, and Barry Hewlett is one of them. Hewlett is a medical anthropologist at Washington State University Vancouver currently studying Ebola. Prior to his work at WSU Vancouver, Hewlett taught at Tulane University in New Orleans. During his time at Tulane, Hewlett taught various classes in public health and tropical medicine. According to Hewlett, he also studied various tropical diseases commonly found in Africa during this time including river blindness, schistosomiasis and HIV. All of Hewlett’s work is exclusively on tropical diseases in Africa.

Hewlett became interested in Ebola in the 1990s. “I started to read in the newspapers about all these Ebola outbreaks in the 1990s. And that in articles from papers like The New York Times, I read stories that implied the locals were ignorant,” Hewlett said. He added that outsiders taking control over the culture of the locals is often problematic in terms of the Ebola outbreak because a lack of cultural understanding is detrimental to preventing and reducing outbreaks. Hewlett said that the locals in Africa knew about the infectious and parasitic diseases common in the area so they were able to help him with his research.

During the 1999 Ebola outbreak in Uganda, Hewlett contacted the Center for Disease Control. He wanted to know if there was a medical anthropologist assisting them. He saw negative portrayal of locals in the media and wanted to help the people understand the locals and more easily control the Ebola outbreaks. The Center for Disease Control reported that they had no medical anthropologist working with them; shortly after, the World Health Organization invited Hewlett to help control the Ebola outbreak in Uganda. That was the first time that the WHO invited a medical anthropologist to help them. Another Ebola outbreak came to Africa in 2003, and Hewlett returned to help control the outbreak together with his wife, Bonnie L. Hewlett, who is a nurse as well as a medical anthropologist.

As a medical anthropologist, Hewlett said that there are four steps to controlling an Ebola outbreak. First, he educates the community, teaching others the local way of thinking, which is essential when working on outbreak control. The next step is to set isolation units that assist in preventing the spread of the disease. Hewlett also modifies locals’ burial practices to comply with prevention practices. In many parts of Africa, when a person dies, it is traditional to wash the dead body and dress the deceased in formal clothing for burial; however, when dealing with Ebola, touching a dead body without proper precautions is highly dangerous. “If someone has died of Ebola, the disease is transmitted by bodily fluids. If you wash the body you’re at risk of getting Ebola yourself. So generally, burials have to be modified. You have to have Red Cross workers help with the burial ceremony” Hewlett said. Finally, the spread is monitored by tracing links between Ebola patients to see who they have been in contact with.

Concern surrounding the spread of Ebola in the United States has risen greatly, but Hewlett addressed these sentiments, saying there is nothing to worry about in the United States. “In the West, we have a concept called the outbreak narrative. Outbreak narrative tends to exaggerate this potentially devastating disease. In reality, Ebola is relatively easy to control if you put people in isolation and by following the contact cases. Medically, it is relatively easy to control if you have the resources, which we have.”

Along with his fieldwork, Barry Hewlett is also the author of the book “Ebola, Culture, and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease,” a book that he wrote in three weeks and in which his wife also wrote one chapter. The book is about Hewlett’s journey to Africa with his wife in 2003. In the work, Hewlett describes how the local people in Africa cope with the spread of disease. To learn more about the Ebola outbreak, other tropical diseases common in Africa, and Professor Hewlett’s ongoing research, contact Barry Hewlett by email at hewlett@vancouver.wsu.edu or by telephone at (360) 546-9449.

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  1. Cyndie Meyer says:

    Interesting local link to an international problem. Thank you!