The Experts The Ebola Response May Need: Anthropologists : Goats and Soda The scientists who study humans and their cultures could help health care professionals treat people who are reasonably, desperately afraid, they argue.

The Experts The Ebola Response May Need: Anthropologists

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. The Ebola outbreak continues to gain strength as it spreads through Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The United States recently deployed military forces to the region to assemble treatment centers. That's in addition to teams from Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organization and others.

But our next guest argues that there is an important group of experts missing here - anthropologists. Ann Kelly is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Exeter. She wrote about all of this for the website Somatosphere. She joins us from the UK now. Welcome.

ANN KELLY: Thank you very much. It's great to be able to talk to you.

WERTHEIMER: So could you just give us a couple of examples of what an anthropologist might bring to the table - for instance, something an epidemiologist would not be able to.

KELLY: Absolutely. Any kind of situations of infectious contagion are highly social. It's an incredibly intimate process. And anthropology is a science of intimacy - of intimate connections. And with Ebola, the points of transmission are through touch.

So an anthropologist does a lot of work with how people interact with each other in an everyday way. Now the anthropologists in the region and also on the outbreak have contributed quite a lot of insight in terms of funerals..

WERTHEIMER: Let's talk about that burial ceremony. There is obviously some kind of delicate balance that is necessary to make this thing work for the people who are trying to bury their loved ones, but also for health workers who are trying to keep everybody safe and be sure that nothing that happens will spread the disease. I mean, how do you work that out?

KELLY: These funerals are key moments. And there are key features that go into making an appropriate funeral. I mean, whether it's seeing the body, making sure that the body is whole because I'm sure you might also be aware that there's a number of rumors that these bodies are being defiled in some way, that there's organ theft. And I think allowing people just to see the body of their loved one, allowing people to have expressions of mourning - to dance, to perform the kind of rituals that they would do within the boundaries of biosafety.

WERTHEIMER: What about the notion that local people have been very suspicious of aid workers? There's been negative reaction to them. Do you think there is a way that anthropologists could explain to the health workers do this, but don't do that - explain to the local populations, don't blame these people?

KELLY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for instance I think people know that health care workers are dying and sick. So the prospect of being taken into a health facility is probably quite scary. So I think even just understanding that these are not kind of crazy responses that people need to be educated from, but these are actually quite reasoned responses can go a long way towards building those bridges between the very important work of health care and these local populations that are quite terrified and trying the best they can to be healthy, to be well, to save their loved ones.

WERTHEIMER: Ann Kelly is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Exeter. She joined us from her home in the UK. Ann Kelly, thank you very much for this.

KELLY: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to talk to you.

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