Ebola and health workers

It starts with familiar flu-like symptoms: a mild fever, headache, muscle and joint pains.

But within days this can quickly descend into something more exotic and frightening: vomiting and diarrhoea, followed by bleeding from the gums, the nose and gastrointestinal tract.

Death comes in the form of either organ failure or low blood pressure caused by the extreme loss of fluids.

Such fear-inducing descriptions have been doing the rounds in the media lately.

However, this is not Ebola but rather Dengue Shock Syndrome, an extreme form of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease that struggles to make the news.

That’s Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Alliance, writing an opinion piece for the BBC. Berkley argues that Ebola grabs headlines not because it is particularly infectious or deadly, but because those of us from wealthy countries have otherwise forgotten what it’s like to be confronted with a disease we do not know how to or cannot afford to treat.

However, in wealthy countries, thanks to the availability of modern medicines, many of these diseases can now usually be treated or cured, and thanks to vaccines they rarely have to be. Because of this blessing we have simply forgotten what it is like to live under threat of such infectious and deadly diseases, and forgotten what it means to fear them.

Ebola does combine infectiousness and rapid lethality, even with treatment, in a way that few diseases do, and it’s been uniquely exoticized by books like the Hot Zone. But as Berkley and many others have pointed out, the fear isn’t really justified in wealthy countries. They have health systems that can effectively contain Ebola cases if they arrive — which I’d guess is more likely than not. So please ignore the sensationalism on CNN and elsewhere. (See for example Tara Smith on other cases when hemorraghic fevers were imported into the US and contained.)

But one way that Ebola is different — in degree if not in kind — to the other diseases Berkley cites (dengue, measles, childhood diseases) is that its outbreaks are both symptomatic of weak health systems and then extremely destructive to the fragile health systems that were least able to cope with it in the first place.

Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, an Ebola outbreak reveals underlying weaknesses in health systems. Shelby Grossman highlights this article from Africa Confidential:

MSF set up an emergency clinic in Kailahun [Sierra Leone] in June but several nurses had already died in Kenema. By early July, over a dozen health workers, nurses and drivers in Kenema had contracted Ebola and five nurses had died. They had not been properly equipped with biohazard gear of whole-body suit, a hood with an opening for the eyes, safety goggles, a breathing mask over the mouth and nose, nitrile gloves and rubber boots.

On 21 July, the remaining nurses went on strike. They had been working twelve-hour days, in biohazard suits at high temperatures in a hospital mostly without air conditioning. The government had promised them an extra US$30 a week in danger money but despite complaints, no payment was made. Worse yet, on 17 June, the inexperienced Health and Sanitation Minister, Miatta Kargbo, told Parliament that some of the nurses who had died in Kenema had contracted Ebola through promiscuous sexual activity.

Only one nurse showed up for work on 22 July, we hear, with more than 30 Ebola patients in the hospital. Visitors to the ward reported finding a mess of vomit, splattered blood and urine. Two days later, Khan, who was leading the Ebola fight at the hospital and now with very few nurses, tested positive. The 43-year-old was credited with treating more than 100 patients. He died in Kailahun at the MSF clinic on 29 July…

In addition to the tragic loss of life, there’s also the matter of distrust of health facilities that will last long after the epidemic is contained. Here’s Adam Nossiter, writing for the NYT on the state of that same hospital in Kenema as of two days ago:

The surviving hospital workers feel the stigma of the hospital acutely.

“Unfortunately, people are not coming, because they are afraid,” said Halimatu Vangahun, the head matron at the hospital and a survivor of the deadly wave that decimated her nursing staff. She knew, all throughout the preceding months, that one of her nurses had died whenever a crowd gathered around her office in the mornings.

There’s much to read on the current outbreak — see also this article by Denise Grady and Sheri Fink (one of my favorite authors) on tracing the index patient (first case) back to a child who died in December 2013. One of the saddest things I’ve read about previous Ebola outbreaks is this profile of Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, a physician who died fighting Ebola in Uganda.

The current outbreak is different in terms of scale and its having reached urban areas, but if you read through these brief descriptions of past Ebola outbreaks (via Wikipedia) you’ll quickly see that the transmission to health workers at hospitals is far too typical. Early transmission seems to be amplified by health facilities that weren’t properly equipped to handle the disease. (See also this article article (PDF) on a 1976 outbreak.) The community and the brave health workers responding to the epidemic then pay the price.

Ebola’s toll on health workers is particularly harsh given that the affected countries are starting with an incredible deficit. I was recently looking up WHO statistics on health worker density, and it struck me that the three countries at the center of the current Ebola outbreak are all close to the very bottom of rankings by health worker density. Here’s the most recent figures for the ratio of physicians and nurses to the population of each country:* 

Liberia has already lost three physicians to Ebola, which is especially tragic given that there are so few Liberian physicians to begin with: somewhere around 60 (in 2008). The equivalent health systems impact in the United States would be something like losing 40,000 physicians in a single outbreak.

After the initial emergency response subsides — which will now be on an unprecedented scale and for an unprecedented length of time — I hope donors will make the massive investments in health worker training and systems strengthening that these countries needed prior to the epidemic. More and better trained and equipped health workers will save lives otherwise lost to all the other infectious diseases Berkley mentioned in the article linked above, but they will also stave off future outbreaks of Ebola or new diseases yet unknown. And greater investments in health systems years ago would have been a much less costly way — in terms of money and lives — to limit the damage of the current outbreak.  

(*Note on data: this is quick-and-dirty, just to illustrate the scale of the problem. Ie, ideally you’d use more recent data, compare health worker numbers with population numbers from the same year, and note data quality issues surrounding counts of health workers)

(Disclaimer: I’ve remotely supported some of CHAI’s work on health systems in Liberia, but these are my personal views.)

Have recent global health gains gone to the poor?

Have recent global gains gone to the poor in developing countries? Or the relatively rich? An answer:

We find that with the exception of HIV prevalence, where progress has, on average, been markedly pro-rich, progress on the MDG health outcome (health status) indicators has, on average, been neither pro-rich nor pro-poor. Average rates of progress are similar among the poorest 40 percent and among the richest 60 percent.

That’s Adam Wagstaff, Caryn Bredenkamp, and Leander Buisman in a new article titled “Progress on Global Health Goals: are the Poor Being Left Behind?” (full text here). The answer seems to be “mostly no, sometimes yes”, but the exceptions to the trend are as important as the trend itself.

I originally flagged this article to read because Wagstaff is one of the authors, and I drew on a lot of his work for my masters thesis (which looked at trends in global health inequities in Ethiopia). One example is this handy World Bank report (PDF) which is a how-to for creating concentration indexes and other measures of inequality, complete with Stata. A concentration index is essentially a health inequality version of the Gini index: instead of showing the concentration of wealth by wealth, or income by income, you measure the concentration of some measure of health by a measure of wealth or income, often the DHS wealth index since it’s widely available.

If your chosen measure of health — let’s say, infant mortality — doesn’t vary by wealth, then you’d graph a straight line at a 45 degree angle — sometimes called the line of equality. But in most societies the poor get relatively more of a bad health outcome (like mortality) and rather less of good things like access to vaccination. In both cases the graphed line would be a curve that differs from the line of equality, which is called a concentration curve. The further away from the line of equality the concentration curve is, the more unequal the distribution of the health outcome is. And the concentration index is simply twice the area between the two lines (again, the Gini index is the equivalent number when comparing income vs. income). The relationship between the two is illustrated in this example graph from my thesis:

You can also just compare, say, mortality rates for the top and bottom quintiles of the wealth distribution, or comparing the top 1% vs. bottom 99%, or virtually any other division, but all of those measures essential ignore a large amount of information in middle of the distribution, or require arbitrary cutoffs. The beauty of concentration curves and indexes is that they use all available information. An even better approach is to use multiple measures of inequality and see if the changes you see are sensitive to your choice of measures; it’s a more a convincing case if they’re not.

The new Wagstaff, Bredenkamp, and Buisman paper uses such concentration indexes, and other measures of inequity, to “examine differential progress on health Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) between the poor and the better off within countries.” They use a whopping 235 DHS and MICs surveys between 1990-2011, and find the following:

On average, the concentration index (the measure of relative inequality that we use) neither rose nor fell. A rosier picture emerges for MDG intervention indicators: whether we compare rates of change for the poorest 40 percent and richest 60 percent or consider changes in the concentration index, we find that progress has, on average, been pro-poor.

However, behind these broad-brush findings lie variations around the mean. Not all countries have progressed in an equally pro-poor way. In almost half of countries, (relative) inequality in child malnutrition and child mortality fell, but it also increased in almost half of countries, often quite markedly.We find some geographic concentration of pro-rich progress; in almost all countries in Asia, progress on underweight has been pro-rich, and in much of Africa, inequalities in under-five mortality have been growing. Even on the MDG intervention indicators, we find that a sizable fraction of countries have progressed in a pro-rich fashion.

They also compared variations that were common across countries vs. common across indicators — in other words, to see whether the differences across countries and indicators were because, say, some health interventions are just easier to reach the poorest with, and found that more of the variation came from differences between countries, rather than differences between indicators.

One discussion point they stress is that it’s been easier to promote equality in interventions, rather than equality in outcomes, and that part of the story is related to the quality of care that poorer citizens receive. From the discussion:

One hypothesis is that the quality of health care is worse for lower socioeconomic groups; though the poorest 40 percent may have experienced a larger percentage increase in, for example, antenatal visits, they have not observed the same improvement in the survival prospects of their babies. If true, this finding would point to the need for a monitoring framework that captures not only the quantity of care (as is currently the case) but also its quality.


08 2014

Friday photos: Bali & Tanzania

I’ve been remiss in blogging about serious things, and this post won’t help on that front. Real writing resumes next week…

Tanzania pt I – Ol Doinyo Lengai (an active volcano), waterfall, and Lake Natron:

Tanzania pt II – Tarangire and Ngorongoro National Parks: 

Tanzania pt III – more Zanzibar photos:

Bali photos:


07 2014

Born in the year of […]

I was looking for the Kenyan 2009 census data and came across that survey’s guide for enumerators (ie, data collectors) in PDF form, here. There’s an appendix towards the end — starting on page 60 of the PDF — that’s absolutely fascinating.

Collecting information on the age of a population is important for demographic purposes. But what do you do when a large proportion of people don’t have birth certificates? The Kenyan census has a list of prominent events from different regions to help connect remembered events to the years in which they happened.

This may well be standard practice for censuses — I’ve never worked on one — but the specific events chosen are interesting nonetheless. Here’s the start of the list for Kirinyaga County in Kenya:

So if you know you were born in the year of the famine of (or in?) Wangara, then you were 100 years old in 2009. Likewise, 1917 was notable for being the year that “strong round men were forced to join WWI”.

On the same note, the US birth certificate didn’t have an option for mother’s occupation until 1960! (That and other fascinating history here. Academic take here.) Also, there are 21 extant birth certificates from Ancient Rome.


04 2014

Friday photo: Upanga, Dar es Salaam

The view from my (temporary) window, click for the zoomed in view:

This is at low tide — most of the sand in the distance is covered when it comes in. On the horizon on the right side you can see the line of ships heading into the Dar harbor

Also, Wednesday I was taking a Skype call with a colleague looking out this window and saw a whale in the distance. Having never really lived on the ocean before, that’s pretty cool.


02 2014

Is there a global health bubble? (Or: should you get an MPH?)

There’s a LinkedIn group for Global Public Health that occasionally has good discussion. One example, albeit a sobering one, is the current discussion of employment opportunities after MPH. I’ve been meaning to write about jobs for a while because now that I’m on the other side of the picture — an employed professional with a job at a reputable organization, rather than a grad student — I find myself doing an increasing number of informational interviews, and saying much the same thing each time.

[First, some caveats on the generalizability of the advice below: first, folks with an MPH from another country often have less debt burden than Americans, so may find it easier to do long unpaid or underpaid internships. Second, folks from low- to middle-income countries are and should be more employable, especially in their own countries. Why? Because they have incredibly valuable linguistic and cultural talents (see Alanna Shaikh’s recent post on this), so much so that an organization choosing between an outsider and a local with the same technical skills, communication skills, etc, should almost always choose the local. If they don’t, that’s generally a sign of a dysfunctional or discriminatory organizations.]

The problem is that there is something of an MPH bubble, especially in global health. The size of MPH classes has increased and – more importantly – the number of schools granting degrees has risen rapidly. Degrees focusing on global health also seem to be growing faster than the rest of the field.  (I’d welcome data on class size and jobs in the industry if anyone knows where to find it.) This is happening in part because public health attracts a lot of idealists who are interested in the field because they want to make a difference, rather than rationally choosing between the best paying jobs, and global health has gotten a lot of good press over the last decade. Call this the Mountains Beyond Mountains Effect if you like.

If you know this, and still go into the field, and don’t have an MD or PhD that qualifies you for a different sort of job altogether, then you need to distinguish yourself from the crowd to be employable. I’m assuming your goal is to get a good job in global health, where “good job” is defined as a full-time professional position with a good (not necessarily big-name) organization, working on fulfilling projects and being paid well enough to live comfortably while paying off the loans that most American MPH grads will have. For some, though not all, a good job might also mean one that’s either based abroad or involves frequent international travel. If that’s the goal, then there are several ways to distinguish yourself:

  1. get some sort of hard, transferable skills. This can be research or M&E skills, especially quantitative data crunching ability, or it can be management/coordination experience with serious responsibility. Or other things. The key point is that your skillset should match jobs that are out there, and be something that not everyone has. A lot of MPH programs feature concentrations — or the lack thereof — that are more appealing to students than they are to employers. A biostatistics concentration will likely serve you better than a global health concentration, for instance, and with some exceptions.
  2. get solid international experience, preferably a year or more. Professional experience in public health — even with a lesser-known organization — is much more valuable than experience teaching, or studying abroad. Travel doesn’t count much, and it’s better to have experience in the region you’re interested in working in. There’s a huge catch-22 here, as you need international experience to get it, so that many global health folks start off doing work they’re critical of later in their careers.
  3. relatedly, speak an in-demand language, though this will only help you to work in the region where it’s spoken.
  4. have professional work experience. Even if it’s not in global health, having worked an office job for a year or two makes you more desirable to employers. No one wants to be your first employer, so folks who go straight to an MPH may find themselves less employable than peers who worked for a bit first.
  5. go to a top school, which signals that you’re smarter or better qualified than others (this often isn’t true, the key part is the signalling, and the networks you acquire). Also, graduates of top schools often get good jobs in part because those schools select people with good work experience, skills, and connections to begin with, so that a superior candidate at a school that’s perceived to be a second or third-tier school can do just fine.
  6. avoid debt (which often conflicts with ‘go to a top school’) to give yourself the flexibility to work for less or for nothing at first, until you can do the above.

Any one or two items from this list probably won’t cut it: you need to acquire several.  For example, I’ve known peers with a solid technical degree from a top school and some international experience who still struggled to get jobs at first because they had never had a regular office job before grad school. Also, the relative importance of each will vary according to the subfield of global health you’re interested in. For instance, learning languages might be more important for an implementation person (program coordinator or manager) or a qualitative researcher than it is for a data cruncher.

I used to be pre-med, until I realized I was more interested in policy and did not want to be a clinician, and the path to doing so in the US is long and expensive. Like many former pre-med students who decided not to go to medical school, it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do, and how to do that without an MD. A couple years post-undergrad I found myself working a job that was interesting enough but not what I ultimately wanted to do, and unable to get a first job in global health without the requisite skills or longer international experience, and I didn’t have the resources to just up and move abroad on my own. So, I went to go to grad school with a technical focus (epidemiology) at a top school, and then used the practicum requirement to build more international experience (Ethiopia). The combination of school and work experience gave me solid quantitative skills because I chose to focus on that each step of the way. But, it also meant taking on quite a bit of debt, and the international practicum would have required even more had I not had generous funding from the econ/policy degree I did. This has worked out well for me, though that same path won’t necessarily work for everyone — especially if you have different interests from mine! — and I think it’s instructive enough to share.

The upside of this bubble is that organizations often hire well-educated, experienced people for even entry level position. The downside is that people from less privileged educational or financial backgrounds often get blocked out of the sector, given that you might have to volunteer for an extended period of time to get the requisite experience, or take on a lot of debt to get a good graduate degree.

In conclusion, getting an MPH — and trying to break into global health — is a personal decision that might work out differently depending on your personal goals, the lifestyle you’re looking for, and your financial background. But if you do get one, be aware that the job market is not the easiest to navigate, and many MPH grads end up unemployed or underemployed for a stretch. Focus on acquiring the skills and experience that will make organizations want to hire you.


02 2014

Travel tips

I’ve put together a list of tips and suggestions for travelers, drawing on advice from colleagues and friends. It’s geared towards public health or development folks who work in and often travel between low-income countries, as opposed to backpackers, tourists, etc.  The document is in Google Drive so I can continuously update it with suggestions — feedback is appreciated.

Another good resource is How to work in someone else’s country by Ruth Stark, which is written with global health consultants in mind, and contains useful packing advice and good general rules for cross-cultural work. Chris Blattman has written quite a bit about this; see especially his posts on air travel, air travel pt 2, packing, and packing pt 2.


02 2014

Tanzania readings and resources

My recent post asking for tips on what to read on Tanzania and Dar es Salaam yielded some great emails. I’ve compiled the recommendations and am sharing them back here:



  • Bjerk, Paul K. “Sovereignty and socialism in Tanzania: the historiography of an African state.” (PDF)
  • Lal, Priya. “Self-Reliance and the State: The Multiple Meanings of Development in Early Post-Colonial Tanzania.”



No recommendations so far, alas. Anyone?


  • quick local bite: Chef’s Pride on Morogoro Road
  • Lukas Bar on Chole Road
  • Al Basha (good Lebanese food)
  • Al-Qayam
  • Badminton Club and Retreat (Indian)

Travel and sights:

  • In Dar: The National Museum (on Sokoine Street). I actually visited this already and found it quite interesting, especially the exhibits on history and rock art.
  • “Zanzibar and Pemba are affordable and gorgeous and filled with history”
  • “Mikumi is a less expensive game park if that is your thing”
  • Arusha and Kilimanjaro
  • Kariakoo market (with good Swahili or a guide)
  • Udzungwa Mountains National Park (with camping gear)


  • “The coolest map remains the really simple photocopied black-and-white line one of the city center that every hotel gives out for free.”


  • Get a dictionary and go “to one of the many school supply shops to buy some elementary school Swahili books. These are books designed to teach Swahili to students in the interior who are only generally only hearing Swahili at school (sometimes church), and they’ll definitely get you up to speed.”
  • Live Lingua has the Peace Corps’ Swahili resources.


02 2014

Taxi conversations (caution: low external validity)

I will try not to generalize too much — a la Thomas Friedman — from conversations with taxi drivers to entire cultures or the state of nations, but I thought these three were worth sharing:

  • In Zambia in October, I was asked “In America, who pays the the other family for a wedding, the man’s family or the woman’s family?” He was aghast that the answer was “neither,” although on further discussion of American wedding rituals I conceded that the bride’s family does pay more of the costs. This then led to many interesting conversations throughout my work in Zambia.
  • In Kenya this week, I listed to a 20-minute explication on US foreign policy on the International Criminal Court. This lopsided knowledge, where non-Americans almost always seem to know more about US policy than Americans know of other countries’ policies, is always a bit surprising, but also an indication that US decisions are felt around the world.
  • In Tanzania last week, I was asked where I’m from. I respond “the US,” and often get “which state?” but “Arkansas” yields blank stares. So, I typically say “Arkansas… it’s next to Texas” or “Arkansas… it’s where Bill Clinton was governor before he became president.” This time I went with the latter explanation. The driver paused, and said “Bill Clinton… Yes, I think I know that name. He is Hillary Clinton’s husband, yes?”  Progress, there.


02 2014

Tanzania and Dar bleg

When I moved to Ethiopia I posted a bleg (blog request) asking for reading suggestions: blogs, novels, history, academic papers, etc., and got some very useful feedback — some in the comments and some by email.

I’m moving to Dar es Salaam this week, where I’ll be continuing my work with CHAI but living a bit closer to the projects I’m working on. I’m interesting in reading broadly about Tanzania, and also specifically about Dar. I’d love to hear any suggestions you have for the following:

  • History books – Dar-specific, Tanzania-specific, or regional
  • Novels
  • Academic papers
  • Blogs / news / RSS to follow
  • Swahili resources (I already have several books and audio guides, but I’m curious what media others have watched or activities you’ve done that facilitated learning Swahili)
  • Must-see travel destinations, must-eat foods, must-do activities
  • Cool maps
  • Tanzania data sets / sources I should be familiar with?

I may report back with my own ideas after I’ve settled in a bit.

Update: read the recommendation I’ve received so far.


02 2014