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

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
: 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.

Wading through myths and facts of Ebola

Wading through myths and facts of Ebola

In the last two weeks, the Ebola Virus (aka Ebola hemorrhagic fever) has dominated the world news media with varying reports. These have either alarmed and terrified the international community or educated and mobilized diverse groups of passionate global citizens like Uniting Distant Stars to join the fight against this deadly, but preventable disease.

Since the Ebola outbreak, I have been following the news reports from several sources while researching what this disease is, how it is transmitted, and how it can be prevented. If one solely relies on the news media, they might as well start singing REM’s popular song “It is the end of the world as we know it.” However, if you supplement the news with thoughtful research of comparisons of earlier outbreaks with the one currently in West Africa, you will find a glimmer of hope.

For example, in Greg Laden’s July 27, 2014, ScienceBlogs post “Ebola Outbreak in West Africa: Some basic information (Updated),” he reviews the statistics of all cases since 1976. Within his research, he debunks the widely believed 90% mortality rate that has been frequently cited in media organizations from CNN to Wikipedia. He states, “Ebola probably has a very high mortality rate when an infected person
gets no medical treatment, and a mortality rate closer to 50% when a
person quickly gets medical attention.” It appears that with early detection of this disease, the survival chances of its victims are greater.

Then there is the likes of the Belgian Professor Peter Piot, one of the discoverers of this rare disease during its first known outbreak during 1970’s in the former Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). He recently said in a Telegraph interview that he would ride next to someone with Ebola on the train. He stressed how this situation is unlikely to cause a major epidemic outside of the affected areas.  In this same interview, he explained why the current outbreak was not contained was due to “a ‘really bad’ sense of panic and
lack of trust in the authorities in West Africa had contributed to the
world’s largest-ever outbreak.”

Leading up to the recent fervor about this devastating humanitarian crisis, there been a lot of denial, disbelief, misinformation and lack of coordination between
the three West African governments and international aid agencies with various medical
organizations like Doctors Without Borders treating the infected patients, who have been pleading for additional help and supplies.

Many media outlets have played their part in misleading the international community of this rare and hard to get disease. This has spread the sense of fear and panic to many parts of the world, including the U.S. on whether someone coming from West Africa could be carrying this disease. This concern was intensified recently when an unknown man returning from West Africa was isolated at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, when he arrived in its emergency room with a high fever and gastrointestinal symptoms. His tests soon revealed that he was negative of Ebola, but this did not alleviate the dismay of the people. 

What Ebola has taught the world is that information is POWER. It can spread FEAR if the headlines are littered with stories of gloom or doom. Or it can spark HOPE if stories are shared that educate people on the facts and what can be done to prevent and stop the problem.

Since Uniting Distant Stars is working in Liberia, where Ebola has wreaked havoc on the people, we will continue to do our part in promoting HOPE through education and awareness.

Press Release: 501(c)3 Status Update, Join the Fight Against Ebola and Relaunch of School Supply Drive

Press Release: 501(c)3 Status Update, Join the Fight Against Ebola and Relaunch of School Supply Drive

Minnesota, August 2, 2014: On Monday July 28, 2014, Uniting Distant Stars received our IRS Determination Letter stating our 501(c)3 Tax-Deductible Status was granted as of July 12. Since receiving this news we have been busy updating our website, flyers and social media sites to reflect this change. We are in the process of setting up our PayPal account to receive online donations, which we hope to have activated soon. In the meantime, Uniting Distant Stars can accept cash, checks and in-kind donations that are all tax-deductible.

We are also working with our fiscal sponsor Ebenezer Community Church in transitioning everything over to our organization. We are extremely grateful for their support during the past 12 months as we have established ourselves as an organization. Many thanks goes to Rev. Francis Tabla (Sr. Pastor), the Board of Trustees, and Bro. Frederick Nah (Treasurer) for making this all possible!!!

Ebola Update: This past week the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency in effort to secure their borders and take other measures to work on finally containing the Ebola outbreak. This crisis has plagued these nations and Guinea (where the first cases were reported) for nearly six months. In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf ordered that all schools be closed starting Thursday (July 31) until further notice, and Friday (August 1) would be a non-working day where everything was shut down to sanitize the public spaces like the markets.

Uniting Distant Stars has been proactive for the past two months in providing information to our team in Liberia on knowing what Ebola is and how to protect themselves. Kelvin Fomba, Country Director, has been educating our volunteers and beneficiaries on what they should and should not do. (Read Professor Peter Piot, Rappler article “Ebola discoverer: I would sit next to victim on train.”)

The recent Ebola related deaths of well-known Liberians–Dr. Samuel Brisbane and Patrick Sawyer–has significantly impacted the diaspora living in Minnesota and other states. In response to this, they have unified their community and invited friends to start a Facebook group called “Concerned Liberians Against Ebola“. Uniting Distant Stars has joined this fight as well. If you like to participate in this campaign, please print our poster as shown below, and email a picture of you holding it to [email protected] We will add this to our Facebook page to show our support in stopping this deadly, but preventable disease.

Also this past week, it was announced that two U.S. citizens–Dr. Kent Brantley and NancyWritebol–working on the Ebola front lines in Liberia had tested positive with it. Dr. Brantley was safely transported back to the U.S. on August 2, for further treatment, and Nancy should be coming soon. For those whose hearts are led to this cause in making monetary or in-kind donations for medical supplies and other support. We recommend two organizations Global Health Ministries and Samaritan Purse to support this important quest of treating those stricken by Ebola and stopping the transmission.

Relaunch Supply Drive: With Uniting Distant Stars now being a 501(c)3 Tax-Deductible Public Charity, we had to redo our 4th Annual School Supply Drive webpage and flyer. Please go to our School Supply Drive
campaign page to get the updated flyer with the supply list and learn more on how else you can
help us reach our 2014 goal of filling and shipping four 14-cubic-foot

The children in Liberia had their worlds turned upside with the ongoing Ebola crisis. This annual campaign will help restore the hopes of our young students at Russ Wood Christian Academy, who look forward to receiving these supplies during the Annual Student Celebration. So, please help us bring Bright Smiles to our Liberia youth by giving supplies or monetary donations today. Thank you for your continued support!!!

Uniting Distant Stars, Inc. is a 501(c)3 tax deductible and Minnesota registered non-profit corporation serving
youth in Liberia, West Africa. We have been providing educational
support since 2011 with scholarships and distributing school supplies.
We also offer innovative programming to cultivate future leaders. For
more information, please contact us at [email protected]