Ebola Lessons

Health workers at Magbenteh Ebola Treatment Centre in Makeni, Sierra Leone, at the time of a visit from Anthony Banbury, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER)
Image credit
UN Photo/Martine Perrett. 

The headlines about death tolls and travel bans are muted, and the images of heroism and unimaginable loss seem distant. Still, Ebola—which has killed 11,000 in West Africa since the start of the outbreak in December 2013—is far from over.

In fact, almost 700 people in Sierra Leone now are languishing in a 21-day quarantine.  It was imposed after a 16-year-old girl died Sunday from the disease in a rural suburb in the country's north that had not recorded a single case of the deadly virus in nearly six months.

In solidarity with the people of West Africa still battling Ebola and struggling to recover from its fallout, a panel of journalists and scientists convened Thursday at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for a Johns Hopkins-Pulitzer Center Symposium.

Their purpose: Share stories and lessons learned that can help prevent, prepare for and manage future crises.

Among those reflecting on the historic outbreak was Tolbert Nyenswah, Liberia’s deputy Minister of Health for Disease Surveillance and Epidemic Control.

“The lesson learned is that that global health community should not take any disease outbreak lightly,” he said.

Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf charged him in August 2014 with the daunting responsibility of coordinating his country’s response to the epidemic. Nyenswah, who earned his MPH from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2012, was a seasoned public health professional who had managed Liberia’s National Malaria Control Program. 

But what was unfolding was unprecedented. “At the peak of the outbreak, we had dead bodies in the streets,” Nyenswah recalled. The virus would spread rapidly through families and caretakers of victims. “Ebola is a disease of affection: people who care for loved ones are highly infected,” Nyenswah said.

In the face of health worker shortages, inadequate health infrastructure, misinformation and distrust of health care providers, he called upon former mentors and worked with governments and health organizations to marshal available resources to build Ebola treatment units and, just as importantly, trust. In the midst of fear and chaos, he led a robust response that reversed the course of the outbreak.

“The international support came late,” he said, “but very huge.”

Now that Liberia has been declared Ebola-free for a second time, Nyenswah is focused on his country’s 1,500 Ebola survivors. “We are doing a natural history study,” he reported, adding that studies show the Ebola virus can be present in a survivor’s semen for more than 170 days.

The 300 people in the audience also heard from two Pulitzer Center grantees who covered the West African outbreak: German journalist Carl Gierstorfer, who screened a 17 minute excerpt from upcoming documentary “Ebola: Death in a Village”; and Nature journalist Erika Check Hayden.

Other speakers included the Bloomberg School’s David Peters, chair of International Health; and Justin Lessler, assistant professor in Epidemiology.—Maryalice Yakutchik

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