February 11, 2015 By Gabriel Benjamin
“Ebola is the biggest crisis to hit Sierra Leone since the civil war. Let’s all do what we can to Kick Ebola Out of Town!”President Barak Obama, 2014
Ebola virus that started in Sierra Leone late May, 2014 after 14 people returned from a funeral of a traditional healer – who had been trying to cure other patients in Guinea, as at 5 February killed 3,276 Sierra Leoneans, infected 10,740, with 8,059 confirmed cases. The official first case of death was recorded after a tribal healer, who had treated an infected person died on 26 May, 2014, in Kailahun – Eastern Sierra Leone.
According to tradition, her body was washed for burial and this appeared to have led to a geometric spread of the virus because corpses of Ebola victims are most contagious immediately after death. Little wonder two US doctors who followed the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) protocols to the letter still got infected. It is still not clear how they got infected.
In a Town Hall meeting in July, 2014, the U.S., through the Charge d’Affaires Kathleen FitzGibbon raised an issue on the need to report to health authorities immediately one may have come in contact with someone infected with Ebola and showing symptoms of fever, diarrhea, weakness, or discharge. As this is the only way anyone could contribute to the fight against Ebola.
The CDC also continued to create awareness among Sierra Leoneans of ways Ebola cannot be transmitted. Ebola is not transmitted through the air. Individuals, who are not showing signs of illness, even if infected, cannot spread the virus. Health care workers who meticulously follow standard procedures to protect themselves from infection will be safe and able to provide medical care while protecting the entire community. This was another noble effort.
In a bid to nip the spread of the virus in the bud, the US Department of State in conjunction with the CDC issued Level 3 Travel Warnings to U.S. citizens traveling to Sierra Leone. It also alerts them on new screening procedures, travel restrictions, and the urgent need to reduce aviation transportation options. This Travel Alert will expire on February 27, 2015.
The September 2014 three-day sit at home, which reached between 75% and 85% of the 1.7 million households throughout the country, was the brain-child of the CDC. The exercise was seen as a watershed moment, with the ultimate goal of isolating 70% of positive cases in order to reverse the upward trend of the epidemic.
In October 2014, President Barack Obama informed the media after a meeting with cabinet agencies coordinating the U.S. government’s Ebola response that the U.S. will continue to lead the international response in West Africa because “the investment we make in helping Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea deal with this problem is an investment in our own public health”. He made this commitment in spite of that there was low probability of a serious Ebola outbreak in the U.S.
A message from Ms FitzGibbon after the death of Head Nurse Mbalu Fonnie, and Alex Moigboi both of the Kenema Government Hospital shows that the U.S. shares in our pains and moment of grief. She said “they – Mbalu and Alex are among the 143 Sierra Leoneans who have succumbed to Ebola. They epitomized what nurses are all about: compassionate and attentive care and selflessness. Their deaths should not be in vain.”
The U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone was also supportive of the idea of using local music as a tool to drive home key Ebola messages. The Ebola Song – “Ebola Must Go” by Jimmy B, Camouflage, Cee Jay, and Wahid is a case study. “This shows the commitment of artists to reach the people: the right message delivered by the right messengers can have an immeasurable impact.” Ms FitzGibbon said. The song received a big boost on the airwaves courtesy of the U.S. Embassy. The icing on the cake was when the Embassy posted the song on its Facebook page and website. The Embassy also supervised the production of a three minute video on the ‘top Ebola key messages’ done by two local celebrities – Jimmy B and Joe Abass Bangura. The messages were developed by the CDC and produced by the U.S. Embassy in Freetown. The video was released in December, 2014.
While the isolation and suspension of many airlines to Ebola affected countries increases, the U.S. was in the frontlines mobilizing on all fronts. It was the U.S. military who established an air bridge to service Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, to bring in supplies and humanitarian personnel. The U.S. Government also funded two treatment centers: International Federation of the Red Cross at Kenema and International Medical Corps at Lunsar. The U.S. CDC has also been running the laboratory in Kenema, assisting the Ministry of Health and Sanitation with data management, supporting the National Ebola Response Center at the national and local levels, and is doing more in strengthening district health teams. As at October, 2014 the U.S. has contributed $175 million to help defeat Ebola.
The U.S. heralded the need for “safe and dignified burial”. According to President Obama, “although it is very difficult for families who have lost a loved one or a respected member of the community, we need to suspend traditions and customs regarding burials and find ways to honor the passage of loved ones that will not infect other persons.”
While the CDC is on the front-line with over 60 experts using data to directly attack Ebola, the U.S also provided a behind-the-scene team – a 300-person strong Emergency Operations Center in Atlanta drawn from the U.S. health professionals, Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes for Health, and Defense Department all working to support efforts to defeat Ebola in the region.
The U.S Embassy in Sierra Leone has also been supporting social mobilization efforts, whilst the small grants program is supporting “Fambul Tok’s” effective outreach discussions in rural areas. The embassy employees have been teaching their neighbors and families about Ebola prevention. In a similar move, the U.S. Mission employees in Sierra Leone took up the responsibility and provided hot meals for the 260 health care workers at Hastings Police Training Center.
In October, 2014, the U.S Embassy paid glowing tribute to the burial team, CDC, WHO, UNMEER, local health officials, and ministers for their collaboration in the Ebola fight. “It is another milestone on burials in Freetown: 100% safe and dignified burials of bodies. We will continue to see the epidemiological curve increase, but this achievement should begin to show results in a few weeks as fewer infections would come from improper burials.” Ms FitzGibbon said. She also congratulated the U.K. for the opening of the Kerry Town Treatment Center.
In a bid to get the traditional healers on board, the U.S. Embassy last November, met with over 95 traditional female healers to discussed Ebola prevention with CDC’s Dr. Austin Demby, Sheik Abubakar, and Reverend Koroma. They advised them to stop the washing of dead bodies and delivery of children in homes.
Ambassador John Hoover, while presenting his letter of credence to President Koroma, further pledged continued engagement with Sierra Leoneans to defeat Ebola. After reeling out grim Ebola statistics he said, “The U.S. will continue to work side-by-side with the government, donors, non-governmental organizations, and civil society on a daily basis.” His arrival coincided with the first phase of the Western Area Surge in December, 2014.
Ambassador Hoover later inspected and donated 24 vehicles procured by the U.S. Government to the then Ebola Emergency Operations Center, headed by Stephen Gaoija now NERC.
Last January, the U.S. Embassy participated in the opening of a 20-bed Ebola Treatment Unit, with approximately 105 workers in Kontorloh Community, Wellington – the heart of a deeply affected community. The centre is funded by the USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, with support from the local community, NGOs, and the Ministry of Health. Although term a ‘pilot project’, “the scale of its operational flexibility allows for quick response to local needs” said Ms FitzGibbon.
The Western Area Surge received commendable support from the U.S. As part of the U.S. support, it took out time to highlight some of the unsung heroes with major emphasis on celebrating Ebola survivors, lab technicians and decontamination teams. This also coincided with the U.S. CDC lab in Bo performing its 10,000th test for Ebola since August, 2014.
In January 2015 also, Ambassador Hoover paid a working visit to the Kontolor Ebola care facility in Wellington run by an international NGO MedAir with funding from the U.S. that was put in place as part of the Western Area Surge. While there, he stressed the need for individuals and communities to join hands in the Ebola fight.
After President Earnest Koroma addressed the nation last week on the need to maintain continued vigilance and to avoid complacency, the U.S. Embassy through its Facebook page reinforced the president’s warning – that the Ebola fight was not over.
The U.S. Government’s engagement in the war against Ebola in the country and sub-region cannot be over emphasized. It’s been massively overwhelming. However, ultimately it is not the U.S. that will defeat Ebola in Sierra Leone; it will be Sierra Leoneans who will win this war on the ground.