Disaster Science During the Ebola Outbreak

In the years following every crisis, experts discuss how they might have brought the disaster under control more quickly, and with fewer casualties. But the Ebola outbreak has lasted longer than anyone expected, and researchers have realized that the time to study it is now—despite the obstacles in doing so.

Beyond financing issues, research during a disaster can seem frivolous at a time when there aren’t enough medical resources to handle the immediate response, never mind the infrastructure needed to gather data. However, the payoff for “disaster science” is potentially huge, because it could help halt the current crisis in addition to those in the future. In Sierra Leone, journalist Amy Maxmen looks at two types of “disaster science”: biomedical and anthropological.

On the biomedical side, researchers are improving the way they study Ebola transmission, diagnostic tests, and Ebola treatments as the crisis continues.

On the anthropology side, researchers are learning how to work with communities to ensure safe burials. More than half of the Ebola cases in Sierra Leone appear to have been caught through interactions with a dead body. That often happens during funeral ceremonies, when people wash, hug, and kiss their loved ones before burying them.

Death is deeply meaningful for anyone with spiritual beliefs, and early attempts to dispose of bodies without informing loved ones pushed the traditional practices into hiding. Now, medical anthropologists are trying to inform response teams of ways to bury the dead in a dignified manner, with modified ceremonies that are both safe and culturally acceptable.