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Adrienne Owens

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Craig Manning: health communications specialist

In 2014, the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were hit with the worst outbreak ever of the deadly Ebola virus. Scientists around the world scrambled to stop it from spreading--and to find a cure. Craig Manning's job was to convince people Ebola exists in the first place.

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Q You work for a government agency called the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What do you do there?

A I actually have two jobs. When there are outbreaks, I am the co-lead for the Health Promotion Team for the West Africa Ebola Response. But my everyday job is health communications specialist for the Viral Special Pathogens Branch.

In this branch of the CDC, we work with viruses that produce hemorrhagic fevers. Hemorrhage simply means bleeding. When you develop a fever, that's your body's normal response to something it does not like having inside it, like Ebola. Your immune system raises your temperature to a fever to make the virus go away. But sometimes, a virus is very clever at disabling the immune system, and it causes bleeding.

Q Are you a scientist?

A My training is in anthropology--that is, the study of societies and cultures. And trust me, that vastly informs these outbreaks. We often have to convince people who live in affected areas that there is such a thing as Ebola in the first place.

Q Is it tricky to convince people that Ebola exists?

A I'll give you an example. I was in Sierra Leone in July of 2014. I already knew there was a certain amount of disbelief. The embassy gave me a car and driver to take me around. When I met the driver, the first thing he said was he didn't believe there was any such thing as Ebola.

Q What did you say?

A I didn't reply. But for 10 days I took him with me to different meetings, talking to lots of people about Ebola. On day nine, we were filling up our vehicle at the gas pump. He saw some local people standing around. He said, "Please go talk to them about Ebola." And what that meant was, he had been persuaded that Ebola was real, that it was a matter of concern, and that he should support my efforts.

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Q You don't have time to convince people one by one, though. How do you reach more of them?

A On one trip, I went to Guinea with my supervisor, Dr. Pierre Rollin. Since he speaks French, he delivered a large number of presentations about Ebola in French. I had a video camera and I recorded him. Then I turned the footage into a series of 30-second radio spots. I took those to a recording studio and asked them to translate them into all 10 of the local languages.

Along with the tapes, we also give the stations images and fact sheets about the risks of Ebola and how to protect yourself. They disseminate our information [like that the virus is transmitted through contact with blood or other body fluids such as urine, saliva, and sweat] to the public. Sometimes I'm riding around with my driver, and I will hear something straight from the CDC website coming out of the speakers of the car.

Q Aside from you, how many people at the CDC work on Ebola outbreaks?

A Normally, we're 45 people. That's always been enough. But this is the biggest outbreak we've seen--the numbers [of people getting sick] are enormous. With so many people and countries affected, we've had to switch into turbo. We have something close to 200 CDC people working in West Africa now, then another 300 back in the U.S., working seven days a week since ... it feels like forever.

Q How often do you go to West Africa to work in the field?

A I've been three times since April 2014. I'm in charge of when I go, and I try to figure out where I'm most useful. Sometimes it's better if I stay back here and coordinate. But I feel like I belong over there too. We debrief everyone at the CDC who returns from Africa, and every person I talk to wants to go back in-country. We are all committed to getting this virus under control.

Lela Nargi is a journalist and children's book author from Brooklyn, New York. Catch her monthly science video-cast at citysciencekids.blogspot.com.

WHO'S ON A CDC EBOLA RESPONSE TEAM TO AFRICA?

* Epidemiologists. These are health workers who study the patterns and causes of diseases. It's their job to understand how an outbreak is moving, how many people are sick, and how many people have died.

* Hospital infection control. These people communicate to doctors at hospitals and clinics about how to keep themselves and their patients safe. They explain how to put on protective gear, and even more important, how to take it off without risk of infecting themselves.

* Laboratory staff. They test blood samples taken from people who are sick. This is the only way to tell if someone has Ebola.

* Logistics. These people are responsible for getting materials in and around each country--like the protective gear the doctors wear and equipment for the labs.

* Health communications. People like Craig Manning share with the public what is known about Ebola, its treatment, and most crucially, its prevention.

I HATE IT WHEN A VIRUS IS SMARTER THAN I AM!

THAN YOU ARE? NOT SUCH A PROBLEM, REALLY!

Caption: Spreading the message in West Africa.

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Caption: Top: Craig Manning addresses the Liberian community in Atlanta, Georgia. Middle: Red Cross volunteers go door-to-door in Guinea. Bottom: Dr. Pierre Rollin talks to the media.

Nargi, Lela