Is Ebola a Game Changer for Global Health?


For many years Global Health initiatives have been focused on stopping the
spread of HIV and AIDS or eradicating ancient diseases like Malaria.
However, the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa has severely tested
the capacity of local and international health ageniess to treat their
patients while protecting themselves from the onslaught of this deadly, but
preventable disease. (View the Quartz interactive map to how this has spread so quickly).

In our last post “Wading through myths and facts of Ebola“, we highlighted what was trending in the media that either terrified or mobilized people. In this post, we will explore the realities that are being faced in West Africa and its lasting impact on Global Health and International Development.

What we have learned so far, is that this six-month siege of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever has
devastated entire families and rural villages. It has strained the economies of the three West African Nations–Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone–to where impoverished people are forced to buy food and necessary supplies at inflated prices. It has also halted
the progress of NGOs like ours. We all have had to shift our focus to
awareness campaigns in order to protect our national teams and the communities we
serve.

Now lets look at how Ebola is a game changer for Global Health? This was bluntly and succinctly expressed in the recent CSPAN video recording of Ken Isaacs, Vice President of Programs and Government Relations for Samaritan’s Purse, as he testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. (Also read his New York Times Op Ed “Why Are We Ignoring a New Ebola Outbreak?” from July 24).

Here are the key facts and realities from his testimony that explains why this unprecedented epidemic has occurred and why more help is needed.

1) International Response Failure: he cited only two medical aid
agencies–Samaritan Purse and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF)–were on the
front lines of this epidemic in the three bordering nations. While
prominent agencies like World Health Organization (WHO) were stating things were under control for the
last few months, MSF was stressing the opposite and pleading for more
help and supplies. Recently the WHO has changed their stance by stating that “the West Africa’s Ebola epidemic is an ‘extraordinary event’ and now constitutes an international health risk.” (Read press release “Ebola: Official MSF response to WHO declaring epidemic an ‘extraordinary event‘” by Dr Bart Janssens, MSF Director of Operations, from August 14).

2) Unprepared Community Health
Worker
: one of the strategies of providing needed medical treatment of common diseases like Malaria and Typhoid, was to recruit and train local people to deal with basic and common ailments. These are moderately educated people, who were provided with some medical supplies and instructions on what medicine should be administered for what sickness or condition. Sadly these community health workers had no idea what Ebola was and were treating patients for what they thought were other illnesses such as Malaria that have similar symptoms. Many of these workers have contracted and died from Ebola, because they were uninformed of this rare and contagious disease. (Read a Thomson Reuters article “Ebola outbreak: High death toll among health worker 1st responders” posted in CBC News on August 9).

3) Stigma of the International Healthcare Worker: This is an issue on both sides of the spectrum. On one side, many of the MSF teams working in remote areas have been threatened by villagers with knives and stones believing the doctors are the cause of this disease. On the other side, Ken Isaacs testified the recently evacuated teams from Sanitarian Purse have struggled with returning home in their respective nations, because their families are unsure to hug them while others in the community have ostracized them.

4) No Mass Evacuations of Infected U.S. Citizens or International Workers: Ken in his testimony shared how he “recognized during the evacuation of our staff that there is only one airplane in the world with one chamber to carry a level 4 pathogenic disease victim.” He was not able to know of any other plane except for this one in the U.S. So this greatly limits the U.S. capacity or any other country to do a mass evacuation of its citizens have been infected.  (Read Mashable’s article “The Obscure Airline That Evacuated the American Ebola Patients” from August 9).

5) The Cost of Corruption: The local healthcare workers have struggled in this fight, especially when their own needs to survive have been endangered. Ken testified that “I know for a fact that in Foya, the second largest center where Ebola is manifesting in Liberia, the workers at the Ministry Health clinic were not paid for five months even after the European Union had put money for it. The money just did not get downstream.”

6) Lack of Understanding at All Levels of Society: A major obstacle has been sensitizing the general population of what Ebola is and how it is transmitted, especially when trying to get people to stop certain cultural rituals. A major one is washing the body in preparation for the funeral, which is when it is most infected. Another concern was how well-educated and highly credentialed people in medical and government positions openly denied the seriousness of this disease and mocked the work of organizations like Samaritan Purse as cited in Ken’s testimony. This led to the deaths of two prominent people in Liberia who believed this was not real.

There are two more things that I like to add to this growing problem that need attention:

7) Inequality: It was decided recently that all the Peace Corp Workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone must be evacuated as a cautionary preventative as efforts are made to contain this disease. Sara Laskowski working in Guinea wrote a powerful blog post about how the Peace Corp evacuations put western privilege at center stage during this epic medical mayhem in West Africa. She shares how she has been living with her host family since the outbreak started. The Peace Corp setup awareness campaigns for their volunteers and the community they served that has helped minimize the impact of Ebola. As she was preparing to leave, she felt the unsettling pain of knowing that her life can be easily saved by moving her out of the affected area while leaving her community behind who are not afforded the same opportunity. 

She could see that the problem did not need to persist, but was instead intensified by stating: “Unfortunately, this outbreak has been severely mismanaged on two ends.
Primarily, the Guinean government is not equipped to handle it but more
tragically the Western world has chosen to feed the fire with
sensationalized media instead of what we really need here in Guinea,
Sierra Leone and Liberia – medical assistance, man-power, education, and funding.”

8) Little to No Trauma Counseling: From the families to the health workers, they have witnessed the carnage of this disease on patients young and old. Many die from massive uncontrollable bleeding and other horrific ways that will haunt the surviving family members and the healthcare workers administering their care. It seems that there has been little to no attention on what aftercare is given to these people such as trauma counseling. The emotions and spirits of everyone is very much strained and without any supportive care, how will these people cope and manage with what they have seen and endured.

In listening to Ken Isaacs testimony several times and reading the reports about Ebola from MSF and other prominent medical organizations, I continue to learn more about how this disease can lead to global concern. According to the WHO Fact Sheet, Ebola has an
incubation period of up to 21 days before its contagious symptoms
emerge. Also, for men who recover from this disease, they still carry the
virus in their semen for up to seven weeks. So with more people being
able to travel around the world, the chances of this infecting other
communities is much greater than previous outbreaks. This why some airlines have suspended service to this affected region while others have introduced screening for fevers and other notable symptoms.

Ebola definitely has uncovered gaps in how international aid organizations have operated and also strengthened the need for better education, sanitation and water systems, and healthcare as means to end poverty thus reducing such epidemics. This is why it is important for both Global Health organizations and other international NGOs to re-evaluate their programs and strategies to ensure that they are able to effectively serve and protect their communities to minimize the impacts of what Ebola has done in West Africa.

Change the Story, Change the Mindset

On any given day our news media outlets paint a bleak picture of the world, airing the same discouraging stories of corruption, crime and war. If one relies solely upon mainstream news sources for information about what is occurring around them, one is likely to feel hopeless and powerless. Fortunately, we have a choice on what type of news we want to consume. It takes a minimal effort, to thoughtfully glean the Internet for stories that describe what is right in this world. There we can find inspirational stories of people whose seemingly small achievements has made a significant impact in the lives of the people around them. When we consciously access this new storyline of Good Works, our mindsets change. Now we can see a world of hope, and begin to recognize and embrace the power we possess to make a positive difference.

The Uniting Distant Stars Project was created to encourage youth to develop an optimistic national perspective. By acknowledging their problems and telling their stories they can inspire their peers around the globe. This is because our youth are more connected than ever before in history, thanks to the advent of the Internet and social media platforms. As the old perceived boundaries vanish, young people can clearly see that what affects them in their nation also affects their counterparts in other countries.

If you take a moment to examine the reaction of today’s youth to multiple economic and environmental challenges, you can sense their collective frustration. On any given day the news around the world contributes to a growing rebellious attitude among its young people. First, their high international youth unemployment
rate, where three times as many youth are unemployed than adults (source: International Labor Organization). Next, having entered college with the expectation of starting
or advancing their careers, far too many graduate with staggering student loan debt and unpaid internships that don’t lead to jobs (source: The Jane Doe). Then there are those starving for food and education, who get involved in anything that they feel will feed their pockets and stomachs (source: New York Times Kristof Blog). Lastly and tragically, the destiny of the remainder is violence: to be recruited as weapons of war (i.e. child soldiers), persuaded to
participate in violent riots against oppressive institutions, or provoked by a sense of worthlessness to openly shoot or bomb innocent people in public places.

Above and beyond the present hardships, our global youth must confront soul-searing uncertainties about their futures. These dismal story lines are not only found in the media, but are also repeated by their families, academia, business, government,
and religion. One story is that they are heirs of national debts generated by policies that solely benefited the older generations. Another is that
they will likely inhabit a desolate planet resulting from short-sighted environmental policies that led to degradation to the landscape and mass extinction of
a variety of species. Then there is the continuous storyline that one
culture, class, race, or religion is better than the rest. Hearing such negativity over and over again can create hopelessness in young people and lead to the conclusion that there is no point in even
trying.

When our young people believe they have no options, they are easily persuaded by those who can fill their needs even though it can come at a cost. We have heard about certain groups that influenced our young people to commit heinous crimes against humanity. For example, I met and talked with a man from Pakistan in 2012, an educator working in
war affected areas, who enlightened me on the definition of Taliban which
means student. If you think about it the word itself is not a bad
thing, but it was who got to these young people first with the means to take care of their needs. Another example comes  from what I have learned about the conflict in Somalia while volunteering with American Refugee Committee. One day I was curious to learn more about
Al Shabaab and discovered that it meant youth movement. Again, the
“name” itself does not mean something to be feared, but it was who there first to provide a solution to their desperate situation.

The Uniting Distant Stars project has been developed to create a new storyline that will be
re-written by our future leaders, innovators, educators, etc. As has been stated before, the
inspiration behind this project–and even the transformation of Uniting
Distant Stars in 2012–came from William Kambwamba, from Malawi, the hero in the book, The Boy Who
Harnessed the Wind. In 2001 when he was 14 years old, his
nation experienced a deadly famine that forced him to drop out of
school. While he was hearing his hunger pangs call in his stomach, he
chose to answer the ones in his mind. By doing so he successfully built
his windmill with limited resources: his own talent, a U.S. scientific textbook, and access to local scrapyard. Young William did not succumb to the
dire situation that faced him, but instead looked ahead at a future that
was filled with nothing but hope. His example of starting something on
next to nothing, can be done even by those who are blessed with far more
resources then him.

William is one of many young
“super” heroes in Africa and other developing nations around the world who
have created grassroots innovative projects with determination,
persistence, hope and whatever resources they can find in front of them. These are the stories that we want to expose our global youth to as reminders that they do have options. Also, this will allow them to claim their place in our greater society as key players in future development.

The Uniting Distant Stars Project is excited to join with 50 young men and women of Liberia, who will write the next chapter of their nation’s history on how the youth can come together and be a force for positive change. They will illustrate how if we change the story, we can change the mindset.

Change the Story, Change the Mindset

On any given day our news media outlets paint a bleak picture of the world, airing the same discouraging stories of corruption, crime and war. If one relies solely upon mainstream news sources for information about what is occurring around them, one is likely to feel hopeless and powerless. Fortunately, we have a choice on what type of news we want to consume. It takes a minimal effort, to thoughtfully glean the Internet for stories that describe what is right in this world. There we can find inspirational stories of people whose seemingly small achievements has made a significant impact in the lives of the people around them. When we consciously access this new storyline of Good Works, our mindsets change. Now we can see a world of hope, and begin to recognize and embrace the power we possess to make a positive difference.

The Uniting Distant Stars Project was created to encourage youth to develop an optimistic national perspective. By acknowledging their problems and telling their stories they can inspire their peers around the globe. This is because our youth are more connected than ever before in history, thanks to the advent of the Internet and social media platforms. As the old perceived boundaries vanish, young people can clearly see that what affects them in their nation also affects their counterparts in other countries.

If you take a moment to examine the reaction of today’s youth to multiple economic and environmental challenges, you can sense their collective frustration. On any given day the news around the world contributes to a growing rebellious attitude among its young people. First, their high international youth unemployment
rate, where three times as many youth are unemployed than adults (source: International Labor Organization). Next, having entered college with the expectation of starting
or advancing their careers, far too many graduate with staggering student loan debt and unpaid internships that don’t lead to jobs (source: The Jane Doe). Then there are those starving for food and education, who get involved in anything that they feel will feed their pockets and stomachs (source: New York Times Kristof Blog). Lastly and tragically, the destiny of the remainder is violence: to be recruited as weapons of war (i.e. child soldiers), persuaded to
participate in violent riots against oppressive institutions, or provoked by a sense of worthlessness to openly shoot or bomb innocent people in public places.

Above and beyond the present hardships, our global youth must confront soul-searing uncertainties about their futures. These dismal story lines are not only found in the media, but are also repeated by their families, academia, business, government,
and religion. One story is that they are heirs of national debts generated by policies that solely benefited the older generations. Another is that
they will likely inhabit a desolate planet resulting from short-sighted environmental policies that led to degradation to the landscape and mass extinction of
a variety of species. Then there is the continuous storyline that one
culture, class, race, or religion is better than the rest. Hearing such negativity over and over again can create hopelessness in young people and lead to the conclusion that there is no point in even
trying.

When our young people believe they have no options, they are easily persuaded by those who can fill their needs even though it can come at a cost. We have heard about certain groups that influenced our young people to commit heinous crimes against humanity. For example, I met and talked with a man from Pakistan in 2012, an educator working in
war affected areas, who enlightened me on the definition of Taliban which
means student. If you think about it the word itself is not a bad
thing, but it was who got to these young people first with the means to take care of their needs. Another example comes  from what I have learned about the conflict in Somalia while volunteering with American Refugee Committee. One day I was curious to learn more about
Al Shabaab and discovered that it meant youth movement. Again, the
“name” itself does not mean something to be feared, but it was who there first to provide a solution to their desperate situation.

The Uniting Distant Stars project has been developed to create a new storyline that will be
re-written by our future leaders, innovators, educators, etc. As has been stated before, the
inspiration behind this project–and even the transformation of Uniting
Distant Stars in 2012–came from William Kambwamba, from Malawi, the hero in the book, The Boy Who
Harnessed the Wind. In 2001 when he was 14 years old, his
nation experienced a deadly famine that forced him to drop out of
school. While he was hearing his hunger pangs call in his stomach, he
chose to answer the ones in his mind. By doing so he successfully built
his windmill with limited resources: his own talent, a U.S. scientific textbook, and access to local scrapyard. Young William did not succumb to the
dire situation that faced him, but instead looked ahead at a future that
was filled with nothing but hope. His example of starting something on
next to nothing, can be done even by those who are blessed with far more
resources then him.

William is one of many young
“super” heroes in Africa and other developing nations around the world who
have created grassroots innovative projects with determination,
persistence, hope and whatever resources they can find in front of them. These are the stories that we want to expose our global youth to as reminders that they do have options. Also, this will allow them to claim their place in our greater society as key players in future development.

The Uniting Distant Stars Project is excited to join with 50 young men and women of Liberia, who will write the next chapter of their nation’s history on how the youth can come together and be a force for positive change. They will illustrate how if we change the story, we can change the mindset.