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George Diepenbrock
KU News Service
785-864-8853

Researcher available to discuss Ebola outbreak in Africa

Wed, 07/30/2014

LAWRENCE — The current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has killed hundreds this year, including an American man working in Liberia who died earlier this month after a flight to Nigeria. Two other Americans working in Liberia, including a doctor, are also infected, according to published reports.

A University of Kansas expert who has studied health emergencies in Africa is available to discuss the current outbreak.

John Janzen, professor emeritus of sociocultural anthropology, can speak about the history of Ebola virus outbreaks in Africa, past efforts to treat patients, how to bridge gaps between local African communities affected by an epidemic and the global response to such a crisis. Janzen has written a book chapter titled "Afri-global Medicine: New Perspectives on Epidemics, Drugs, Wars, Migrations, and Healing Rituals" which focuses on conversations between local communities and global experts about epidemics. The essay appeared in the 2012 book "Medicine, Mobility and Power in Global Africa: Transnational Health and Healing."

Janzen in 2013 also served as a Senior Research Fulbright scholar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he worked on health issues.

The current outbreak has caused countries to be cautious about air travel, and Janzen said there is danger of the outbreak spreading, for example, if an infected person arrived at a major American airport.

"Obviously, the global nature of travel and communications (including bugs) means that what happens in one corner of the world is likely to spread elsewhere fairly quickly," he said. "So the people at the site of infection have an interest in dealing with the disease, everyone else in understanding it and taking appropriate action."

Janzen also researched the history of Ebola outbreaks in Africa in a 2005 paper titled "Etiological Dualism in Ebola Public Health Crises in Central Africa," in which he examined the balance between naturalistic and sociopolitical causes and how global health organizations should respond to local African communities that are infected. Often there are language and other cultural barriers in play, he said. He said the fear of a deadly epidemic can cause people to deny the possibility of infection and to flee from those identified with the disease, such as members of an international health team, who are dressed in intimidating clothing and proposing to isolate infected communities in an enclosure that could be seen as a prison. 

"This is where there is a critical need for global health workers to understand the structures of power, authority and control in local communities," Janzen said. "If globals and public health officials do not effectively communicate their intentions, the terrified community risks shifting its grasp of the issue from a naturalistic explanation to one of willful, mysterious, nefarious enemies out to kill them."

To arrange an interview with Janzen, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.



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