Collaborating to Curb Ebola

February 24, 2015

Duke alumni involved in global health and social entrepreneurship are guiding students in an ambitious challenge to end the largest Ebola outbreak in history.

More than 160 Duke students envisioned innovative ways to curb the spread of the virus in West Africa through the Duke Ebola Innovation Challenge, an on-campus competition held last fall and sponsored by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, along with two Duke social-entrepreneurship programs. The initiative brought together diverse disciplines, including the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, to weigh in on potential solutions to stop Ebola.

“We believe strongly that especially when it comes to social issues—the solutions to things like Ebola or inequality or climate change—that these issues are not going to be solved by one particular profession,” says Erin Worsham ’00, the executive director for the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). “We’re really going to need to bring together as many critical and innovative thinkers as we can.”

For a week, undergraduate and graduate students attended seminars by Duke professionals involved in global health and infection control and then formed teams to develop their ideas. The week concluded with a pitch to a panel of alumni and faculty judges. The judges gave feedback on the projects and selected one they believed had the greatest potential for being implemented in West Africa.

Among the projects: a cooling system for protective equipment worn by health-care workers, a plan to deploy Ebola survivors with possible immunity as health-care workers in the field, and a cell-phone app that tracks protective equipment to ensure health-care workers have the correct equipment and enough of it.

For judge Dennis Clements HS ’76, professor of medicine and a senior adviser at the Duke Global Health Institute, the most scalable project was an Ebola patient toolkit that health-care workers could use when conducting home visits.The toolkits would be designed differently for every place where there is an outbreak, based on the needs of the patients and the resources available in the area, Clements says, and would include materials such as rehydration packets, simple medical supplies, and protective equipment.

“When there are no beds and you don’t have the hospital facilities available, that’s the only thing you can do—go to the home and do palliative care,” says Debra Hunt ’73, director of biological safety for the Duke University Health System, who spoke to the teams during the challenge. “That thinking is on the right track. Equip the person.”

The result of the Duke Ebola Innovation Challenge was inspiring, Worsham says, because it showed Duke students they needed one another to find a solution to one of the biggest health-care crises of our time. “We had students who were in the nursing program or the medical school who really understood the plight of the health-care worker. And then we had students from the business school who could really think about the product to make it sustainable.”

Engaging with students as they imagined ways to fight Ebola also inspired Hunt and Clements, both of whom say they got to see students who were genuinely interested in helping others from across the world. “When there’s no perceived benefit to that person to be involved in the challenge,” Clements says, “it shows a great bit of the human spirit.”

The judges encouraged the teams to submit their projects to a national competition held by the U.S. Agency for International Development called the Ebola Grand Challenge. The competition is crowdsourced and allows all participants to build on each other’s ideas. In the coming months USAID will select several projects to help fight the spread of Ebola.

  • Christina Holder M.Div.'13 the DAA's assistant director of communications.