Earlier this year Dr. Mike Drusano spent nearly six weeks in West Africa treating patients at Ebola Treatment Units in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was around this time that the attention in mainstream media had begun to dissipate, and the crisis appeared to finally resolve itself.
Dr. Drusano however, tells a different story about the reality of life in these countries upon his return to the United States. “Ebola response has to go on for years to come,” he claims, and added that without significant work “it is very likely that this will happen again.” This work involves addressing a host of issues such as education and building a sustainable infrastructure.
Specifically, he finds it crucial to fix the already fragile medical system in the former U.S. colony of Liberia, which, according to him, suffered a “huge blow” from Ebola – the disease having killed a significant portion of its medical professionals in the first few months.
“There are a ton of other pathologies that look like Ebola,” Dr. Drusano explained. Therefore, scores of doctors and nurses were killed early on in the outbreak simply because they didn’t know what they were dealing with. To further complicate matters, there are no funeral homes, and the dead are cleaned and cared for by the family as part of important burial rituals. “When a person dies from Ebola, the corpse is practically crawling with the virus,” and it is for these reasons, together with a devastated medical infrastructure, that he believes the threat of future outbreaks is always on the horizon.
Of course, another aspect of the epidemic often overlooked is the havoc that has been unleashed on the other sectors of society and on the personal lives of the survivors. For instance, the Ebola outbreak shut down schools in Liberia for 6 months. Such a lapse in the education of an entire nation would be a major social concern for any country, let alone one where primary school attendance percentages already hovered at a mere 41.1% before the outbreak.
A major concern is making sure that students can and will return to schools now that they have been reopened. This can be a significant challenge for families whose lives have been turned upside-down by the epidemic. He describes Ebola as a “caretaker’s disease,” and while he saw few children in his tour in west Africa, this perhaps only points to the overwhelming number of new orphans left behind by Ebola. These orphans along with other survivors, according to him, often face “stigma and discrimination” from families and communities. Without the necessary support structures, many may find returning to school impossible.
An educational setback of this magnitude has the potential to effect a whole host of future issues in economics, politics, and even national health. “A pamphlet [educating on Ebola] means nothing if you can’t read it,” Dr. Drusano observed considering the possible contribution of illiteracy to future outbreaks. Moreover, without basic education the health systems of countries like Liberia have little hope of one day replacing the medical professionals claimed by the disease with their own citizens.
Important organizations like Partners in Health (PIH), with whom Dr. Drusano worked during his time in West Africa, currently do their utmost to provide comprehensive care and readjustment assistance to Ebola survivors. However, he noted the importance in this situation of help from many different organizations working in unison to provide services in order to rebuild the lives and communities affected by Ebola.
An important aspect of providing aid to countries like Liberia, Dr. Drusano believes, will require establishing sustainable solutions that involve a sensitivity to local culture and concerns. A major obstacle he and other health workers faced was overcoming some of the skepticism that West African’s feel toward foreign aid, and much work had to be done by him and PIH to address this. He agrees with Lifting Liberia that the best solution is to build strong personal relationships and good communication between aid workers and the people they are trying to help.
“Foreigners have come in before and promised to make things better,” he observes, and this is definitely true of Liberia where people remember their history as a former U.S. colony well. Lifting Liberia is committed to facilitating community based, home-grown solutions to local problems, working with local leaders, and community members to find sustainable solutions to the ongoing struggles of Liberian’s.
“Ebola was just a symptom of the issue,” Dr. Drusano noted in the interview, and his use of medical language here is particularly apt. The symptom of Ebola for now is being alleviated, but without more work the true disease of poverty, lack of education, and a weak medical infrastructure will persist stronger than ever, even after Liberia is declared “Ebola free.”
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