Jun. 15 2015

Craig Spencer Warns of Complacency on Ebola

Fresh after returning from a second tour in West Africa with Doctors Without Borders, Craig Spencer, alumnus of Columbia University’s Mailman School known to the world as an Ebola doctor, patient, and tabloid sensation, spoke at the School’s Alumni Summit on June 4.

The annual event celebrating alumni accomplishments brought together faculty and alumni, including Spencer, who received his Master of Public Health from the School in 2013, and Wafaa El-Sadr, University Professor and director of ICAP. In wide-ranging discussion on Ebola, Spencer warned that the world was ignoring lessons from the outbreak and in danger of jeopardizing the future stability of the region.

“There is a huge danger of complacency,” said Spencer, associate professor of Medicine and emergency medicine physician at Columbia University Medical Center. While the Ebola outbreak has peaked, the number of new cases is still at the level they were a year ago. “We know what can happen because it’s happened before,” he added.

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Craig Spencer with Wafaa El-Sadr (left) and Dean Linda P. Fried (right)

Last fall Spencer made headlines when he contracted Ebola after returning from Guinea where he treated Ebola patients with Doctors Without Borders. He returned to Guinea in March, serving as the organization’s national epidemiology coordinator. (Read more about Craig Spencer in the current issue of New York Magazine.)

Speaking to fellow alumni, Spencer underlined the importance of public health in fighting outbreaks like Ebola, noting that the majority of responders on the ground aren’t healthcare providers, but public health professionals. He praised the efforts of epidemiologists, health promoters, and public-health-trained Geographical Information System officers and logistics experts he worked with.

Adequate international response was much too slow to arrive, he explained. The World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency after months of watching the outbreak spread. Spencer said the delay, partially the result of pressure to avoid disrupting trade and tourism, was costly, stalling development of a vaccine and therapeutics.

Closer to home, Spencer applauded Mary Bassett, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, saying she did an “amazing job” explaining the real risks of getting Ebola at a time when many Americans were frightened. “The problem is that Dr. Bassett’s word was not heard as much as many other people with less credentials who incited fear.”

Expressing gratitude for the care he received at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Spencer observed that the number of physicians working there was more than total physicians working in the three affected West African countries combined before the outbreak. “The problem doesn’t start when the first case is discovered, nor does it go away when the last case is diagnosed.”

With its health systems in now tatters, Spencer said the region is at risk for a second public health disaster worse than the first. Absent an effective measles vaccination program, more people there could die of this virus than all of the people who died of Ebola. Another problem is HIV treatment. On his latest trip, he saw patients who had once been on antiretroviral therapy previously that now had symptoms of AIDS.

Similar public health crises following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2005 tsunami in Indonesia, Spencer said, noting, “A weak health system anywhere, makes us vulnerable everywhere.”

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Paul Brandt-Rauf and Dean Fried

Alumnus Honored

The 2015 recipient of the Allan Rosenfield Alumni Award for Excellence, Paul Brandt-Rauf, was honored for contributions to occupational health, health policy, and research into environmental drivers of cancer. He also has an usually strong connection to the Mailman School and Columbia University.

Brandt-Rauf, currently Dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, was a faculty member at the Mailman School for more than 20 years, including as chair of Environmental Health Sciences. All six of his post-graduate degrees are from the University, including an MPH and DrPH from the Mailman School, as well as diplomas from Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering School and the College of Physicians and Surgeons.  

The award would inspire him to strive for excellence in public health and embody the legacy of longtime Mailman School dean Allan Rosenfield. “Give me another 20 or 30 years, and invite me back. I’ll tell you if I come close to deserving this honor,” he said.

Nearly 200 people attended the seventh annual Summit at the Columbia University Faculty House. Alumni had the option of an information session on networking and career development with Heather Krasna, director of Career Services, or one of two discussions on current public health topics between Mailman faculty and alumni. Michael Sparer, chair of Health Policy and Management, spoke with Danielle Holahan, MPH '99, deputy director of the New York State Health Benefit Exchange, about the Affordable Care Act.