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An Interview about Ebola with Dr. Mark Bloom, BSCS Science Educator

August 8, 2019

Today, the Democratic Republic of Congo is experiencing the second worst outbreak of Ebola in history, with roughly 1,700 deaths and 2,500 documented cases already.

BSCS Science Learning has developed a free resource to educate the public about Ebola. The website—Understanding Ebola Virus Disease—includes an interactive model that allows teachers, students, and community members to actively explore the factors that influence a disease’s spread and mortality rate.

BSCS Science Educator Dr. Mark Bloom elaborates on the implications of Ebola and this resource in an interview below.

Why is studying diseases like Ebola important for us, the general public, in today’s world?

Viruses are all around us, and with world travel becoming more evermore commonplace, it is becoming easier for an infection to spread from one country to another. Understanding individual viral diseases helps us better appreciate which diseases pose the greater threats, allowing us to allocate health resources accordingly. Until the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015, previous outbreaks were relatively small and self-contained. This meant the development of vaccines and medicines to treat Ebola proceeded slowly. Now, with hindsight, we can see it would have been better, both from an economic as well as a humanitarian perspective, to have taken the threat more seriously. The most recent outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has, as of July 2019, led to over 1,700 deaths.

What makes Understanding Ebola Virus Disease a great resource?

The virus model allows the user to explore important factors that contribute to the spread of Ebola infection and discover how these factors can interact to produce an epidemic. The model is a means of self-discovery. Instead of just providing descriptions and statistics about Ebola, users can ask and answer their own questions about how the disease spreads. While the model focuses on Ebola virus disease, the same factors apply to many other viral infections, including ones that are common in the United States.

What does the interactive offer the classroom teacher or informal education instructor, and how might an instructor best use it?

Naturally, the resource lends itself to teaching about viruses and the spread of disease. However, it also connects to concepts related to mathematics, evolution, and the social sciences. For instructors interested in the Next Generation Science Standards, they will find the resource addresses selected disciplinary core ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts.

In what ways is the resource user-friendly?

Following a brief introduction, the resource guides the user through the use of the virus infection model. Definitions for each term used in the model are provided and can be conveniently accessed when using the model. The infection model is introduced in two stages to make it easier to follow. In the first stage, the user manipulates three factors that relate to the biology of the Ebola virus. After exploring how these virus characteristics influence the spread of the disease, the user proceeds to the second stage, where they explore three factors that relate to the medical community’s response to the infection. Finally, to put it all together, the user manipulates all of the factors at once to investigate questions of their own. After exploring the virus infection model, the user can view a dynamic map that illustrates how and where the disease spread over time. The resource also features interactive maps that relate population density and Ebola Treatment Units to the spread and eventual decline of the outbreak.

What might surprise the general public about Ebola?

People are afraid of Ebola virus because the probability of dying from infection is high (from 25 to 90 percent in past outbreaks). It is surprising to people that Ebola is less infectious than many other viruses. It is not transmitted through the air or from casual contact. Measles, for example, is much more easily spread than Ebola virus. In September 2014, Thomas Eric Duncan contracted an Ebola infection in Liberia and then traveled to Dallas, Texas. He came down with symptoms and lived with his partner and five children for several days without passing the infection on to his family. He was the first person to die from an Ebola infection in the United States.