Between Securitisation and Neglect: Managing Ebola at the Borders of Global Health

Date: 28 March 2017
Time: 4:30 - 6:00pm
Venue: 4.36, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

Between Securitisation and Neglect: Managing Ebola at the Borders of Global Health by Dr. Mark Honigsbaum(Wellcome Research Fellow, Queen Mary University London)

 seminar posterAbstract:
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. Focusing 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.

About the Speaker:
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.

All welcome. Enquiries:

This event is co-organized with the Department of History and the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, HKU.