Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 4:30 PM
Department of History
Research Seminar: Between Securitisation and Neglect: Managing Ebola at the Borders of Global Health
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Message from Department of History
Between Securitisation and Neglect: Managing Ebola at the Borders of Global Health
Speaker: Dr. Mark Honigsbaum
(Wellcome Research Fellow, Queen Mary University London)
In 2014 the World Health Organization was widely criticised for failing to anticipate
that an outbreak of Ebola in a remote forested region of southeastern Guinea would
trigger a public health emergency of international concern (pheic). In explaining the
WHO's failure, critics have pointed to structural restraints on the United Nations
organisation and a leadership "vacuum" in Geneva, among other factors.
This talk takes a different approach. Drawing on internal WHO documents and
interviews with key actors in the epidemic response, I argue that WHO's failure is
better understood as a consequence of Ebola shifting medical identity and systems for
managing Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) risks. Focussing on the discursive and non-
discursive practices that produced Ebola as a "problem" for global health security, I
argue that by 2014 Ebola was no longer regarded as a paradigmatic EID and potential
biothreat so much as neglected tropical disease. The result was to relegate Ebola to
the fringes of biosecurity concerns at just the moment when the virus was crossing
international borders in West Africa and triggering urban outbreaks for the first time.
Ebola's fluctuating medical identity also helps explain the wide salience of fear and
rumours during the epidemic and social resistance to Ebola control measures.
Contrasting the WHO's delay over declaring a pheic in 2014, with its rapid declaration
of pheics in relation to H1N1 swine flu in 2009 and polio in 2014, I conclude that such
"missed alarms" are an inevitable consequence of pandemic preparedness and risk
triage systems that seek to rationalise responses to novel emergence events.
Mark Honigsbaum is a Wellcome Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London
specialising in the history of infectious disease. His main research project focusses on
a group of medical researchers working at the intersection of experimental medicine
and public health in the middle decades of the 20th century. By examining how these
researchers came to link microbial behaviour to bio-ecological, environmental, and
social factors that impact host-pathogen interactions and the mechanisms of disease
control, his study aims to historicize contemporary scientific notions of ‘emerging
infectious diseases’ while contributing to a reorientation of the historiography of
bacteriological epidemiology. In parallel with this, he has also conducted more than 40
interviews with key scientific actors and responders in the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic as
part of an oral history project interrogating the medical and humanitarian response to
the outbreak and the conduct of clinical trials of vaccines and drugs. Before obtaining
his PhD from the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine at UCL in 2011, Mark
was Chief Reporter of The Observer, Britain’s oldest Sunday newspaper. He is the
author of four books, including A History of the Great Influenza Pandemics: Death,
Panic and Hysteria, 1830-1920 (I.B.Tauris, 2014), and The Fever Trail: In Search of the
Cure for Malaria (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). He is currently writing a book on
pandemics for W. W. Norton for publication in 2018.
Co-organized with the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, HKU, and the
Journalism and Media Studies Centre, HKU.
All are welcome.
Date/Time: 28/03/2017 16:30-18:00
Venue: Room 4.36, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus
Registration is not required.
This event is free of charge.
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