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Focus On The Toll Of Ebola

Two Northwestern professors to discuss Ebola fears, facts, costs and lessons learned

EVANSTON, Ill. --- How fear skewed the perceptions of Ebola will be part of the discussion by two Northwestern University professors during a panel on the human and economic costs of pandemics presented by the Illinois Humanities Council.

Moderated by WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef, “The Cost of Health Crisis: Measuring the Economic and Human Toll of Pandemics,” will feature a panel of experts and begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 14, in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium in the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., Chicago.

In the U.S., Ebola never reached the level of pandemic -- unlike HIV-AIDS. However, its arrival highlighted problems in the health care system, which, if left unaddressed, will hamper the country’s ability to respond to a pandemic should it become necessary.

Catherine Belling, associate professor at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine and an expert on medical humanities and bioethics, will discuss the “fear factor” associated with Ebola and the way themes in literature and film fed into America’s anxiety regarding the virus.

Bruce Lambert, professor of communication studies and director of the Center for Communication and Health at Northwestern, will address systemic weak points in the U.S. health care system brought to the fore by Ebola as well as communication challenges hospitals face in informing the public.

“We want to talk about the costs of keeping the citizens safe,” said Michele Weldon, program director for the Illinois Humanities Council and assistant professor emerita at Northwestern. “Whose responsibility is it -- individuals, the media, businesses or the government? We’re lucky to have two Northwestern experts joining us for what will be a riveting discussion.”

Belling, the author of a book titled “A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria,” will reflect upon the plot twists that followed the discovery of Ebola in the U.S.

“Clearly the risk of contracting Ebola in the U.S. is minimal,” Belling said. “Still, people have the sense they are in grave danger -- like they are in a horror movie. The perceived awfulness of it wins out over the actual, low probability that an individual will be infected.”

In his discussion, Lambert will talk about systemic, longstanding problems in the U.S. health care system brought to the fore by Ebola.

 “Something like Ebola challenges the health care system so that quality problems manifest themselves,” Lambert said.

“Inaccurate diagnoses are incredibly common in the U.S., and too often we fail to prevent the spread of infections within hospitals because health care providers are not washing their hands between patients,” he added.

Lambert noted that the first recorded case of Ebola in the U.S. was misdiagnosed.

 “At our best, we will be able to handle a pandemic like Ebola,” Lambert said. “At our worst, we are not even able to handle routine problems.”

Other panelists include Dr. Robert A. Weinstein, professor of internal medicine at Rush Medical College and past chair of CDC’s Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee, and Rena Conti, assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the University of Chicago Department of Pediatrics.

To register for the event, visit the Illinois Humanities Council’s website at

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