Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications has a reputation for being a topnotch journalism institution. But on Friday, the school was doling out a new lesson: media hysteria.
On Thursday, the university rescinded Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille’s invitation to participate in a photography workshop this weekend, citing a trip he took to Ebola-stricken Liberia 20 days earlier. Since his return, du Cille says he has followed all necessary quarantine protocols. He checks his temperature several times a day and has shown no symptoms of the virus. Had he visited Syracuse this weekend, he would have been one day out of his 21-day quarantine.
“There was no medical reason for Michel to be disinvited. Institutions of higher learning have to be responsible and not feed into this fear and frenzy,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
While Ebola is widespread in parts of West Africa, just because someone visited the region does not necessarily mean they became infected. In fact on Wednesday, du Cille shadowed CDC Director Tom Frieden for a profile piece for the Washington Post. On Thursday, he snapped photos from the press gallery on Capitol Hill for the House’s hearing on the Ebola crisis. Still, du Cille was not welcome at Syracuse University on Saturday.
“The key for us is the fuzziness of how long the incubation period could be,” Lorraine Branham, dean of the Newhouse School, told IBTimes. “I told him if he was just coming to see me -- to have dinner at my house, having wine -- I would have no qualms. But it’s not just about me. Just because I know the risk is low, any risk is too much when students are concerned.”
Branham said the university consulted with county health officials who said the CDC’s 21-day incubation period might not be accurate. She pointed to one study conducted by Drexel University that concluded there is a 12 percent chance that someone could be infected even after the 21-day quarantine. She also referred to a report from the World Health Organization that said Senegal had Ebola case findings after 42 days.
“I think the CDC’s 21 days is a sure thing. It’s the guidance we are following,” said Arnold Monto, a professor in the epidemiology department at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He noted that if his school’s dean asked him a similar question about a guest who had previously visited West Africa, he would say “it’s safe to have them in the presence of students.” He points to one of the University of Michigan’s project officers who visited West Africa recently and has been working with students since he has returned. “This is not a terribly transmissible disease outside a health care setting,” Monto said.
This is evident in West Africa and in the U.S. Doctors Without Borders employees have treated more than 4,000 Ebola patients in West Africa, and only two have been infected. Both of those cases were related to patient care in medical settings – not being out in the general population. The two nurses infected in Dallas and the Spanish nursing assistant offer similar examples. All three had direct contact with patients infected with the virus in medical settings. While they wore protective equipment, officials believe their safety was jeopardized in improper procedures while removing the gear. Meanwhile, people who lived in Dallas with Liberian national Thomas Duncan, who died of the virus on Oct. 8, have not reported any symptoms. They are nearing the end of their 21-day quarantine too.
Indeed, the Ebola epidemic has proven to be incredibly serious. The WHO estimates that 10,000 new cases will be reported within the next two months. “Right now, Ebola is the world’s Katrina,” Osterholm said. If anything, Osterholm expects the hysteria in the U.S. will dispel in a month or two since the epidemic is in West Africa.
Syracuse University says it has invited du Cille to return at a later date to discuss the Ebola crisis with students. He said he would think about it. When asked whether the university would screen future guest speakers on their past travels, Branham said, “I would hope that people will self-identify. We’re not on some kind of witch-hunt.”