By Varney M. Kamara
Imagine a sophisticated, highly skilled and well-trained enemy army invading an army garrison without any prior notice to signal that a major attack was eminent. I am sure; you would agree with me 100% that the situation would be scaring, chaotic, and life threatening.
Flashback of the 2014 EVD Outbreak in West Africa
Although the premise above does not practically apply to the military battlefield in real time war scenario, it however holds multiple similarities in many respects, given its scale, magnitude, and aftereffects.
It is a true life story of a professional Liberian journalist who covered the 2014 deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), a global health pandemic that took away the lives of over 14,000 citizens of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
In early April 2014, I woke up one morning to very sad news which was aired on state radio ELCBC that a deadly hemorrhagic fever called Ebola had attacked the motherland from the Republic of Guinea and entered the country by way of travellers through the country’s northern enclave in Foya, Lofa County, killing an elderly woman and hospitalizing two others.
A few of the virus’ symptoms include severe fever, vomiting, extreme headache, running stomach, malaria, amongst others.
Completely strange to the country and its citizens, many doubted the existence of this powerful invading enemy force, and nurses, medical doctors, health workers, including volunteers, defenselessly threw themselves in the way of this rampaging attacker. Quickly, there was a call for national unity against the common enemy.
However, in spite of this call, the enemy persisted in taking away lives in huge number, including some of the country’s best brains. The epidemic affected every fabric of the Liberian society as women, children, youth, and the elderly, tried to figure out how they could save their lives against an unknown foe that was hot and extremely difficult to contain.
Siege of Severe Ebola virus disease during the 2014 deadly EVD outbreak which took away over 14,000 lives in W/Africa
Disbelief, traditional believes and practices, such as bathing dead bodies, refusal to avoid handshakes, avoiding unsafe sex and physical bodily contacts, also complicated the already precarious situation for the government that soon looked up to the international community for immediate help.
From the onset of the outbreak, the virus rapidly spread from Lofa to Monrovia and subsequently blowout to other parts of the country. The Government of President Sirleaf and its health officials struggled initially to contain the disease from spreading as health authorities had no idea on how to engage the invader, coupled with a health infrastructure deficit, a situation which byzantine the matter and increased headache for the government as citizens became increasingly nervous about the advancing plague.
The fight against Ebola, no doubt, took every aspect of our lives, including journalists, who themselves were under immense obligation to report daily on the outbreak, despite the enormous danger that it posed to the lives of each one of the reporters covering the endemic. For me, it was a matter of sacrifice for the nation, and it didn’t really matter which profession you came from.
The experience of the EVD outbreak varies from one person to another, depending on one’s narration of circumstances appertaining to how a person came in contact with the disease or was directly or indirectly affected by it. The disease is even insurmountable when combining its fight with fear, one of the greatest factors which led to many deaths during the outbreak.
From the typical experience of this scenario, and I myself being a living testimony of how dead bodies were being carried from one medical center to the graveyard, it would be extremely hard for me to forget that faithful night of July 28, 2014, when I woke up my wife, Mrs. Watta Kamara, around 1:30am, informing her that I wanted to vomit. In my mind, two days after covering EBOLA story at the ELWA camp and also visited a burial site outside Harbel, Margibi County, without any medical examination, I prematurely concluded I had been infected with the virus. I quickly looked at my wife in the eyes and told her not to dress the kids close to me on the bed for fear of infecting them.
Fear had totally consumed me, and I instructed her that I wanted to go to the bathroom to observe nature. She, too, was terribly scared based on the strange manner in which I was behaving. In the bathroom, I did not defecate anything out of my system and later came back to my bedroom with too many confusion in mind. While sitting on my bed thinking on my next course of action, again, I asked my wife for a cup of water to drink. After drinking the cup of water, strangely, the situation calmed down, and I felt to a nervous sleep. The next day, not being satisfied with my condition, without informing my wife and the kids, I walked to the “Goodwill Clinic” in the Jallah Town Sinkor belt and explained to a Physician Assistant (PA) Tombawelee Kamara what was happening to me.
In line with strict safety measures, I asked him to wear the protective gloves before touching my skin in order to medically examine and establish the cause of my ill feeling. A couple of minutes after the examination, PA Kamara informed me that my case was not Ebola and that I was suffering from gastric stomach(tight stomach- constipation), light malaria, symptoms which can also cause headache and immense bad feeling similar to the EVD’s symptoms. However, the test results immediately relieved me. PA Kamara gave me few gas and malaria tablets and I took them in and, by the end of day, my health condition improved rapidly, and I regained full fitness as darkness approached.
A lady painstakingly weeps as health workers carry her dead relative for burial during the outbreak of the EVD
Notwithstanding, my experience with the EBOLA outbreak may just be one of few fortunate cases throughout the fight against the deadly disease. At various lengths, the situation was dreadful, tearful, mournful, appalling, and even chaotic and yet, we had absolutely no choice but to fight to defeat this common national enemy called EBOLA.
Four years have passed since the epidemic was declared over by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the West African sub-region, but the EVD’s scars are long-lasting and memorable, and those painstaking days, weeks, and nights, will never be forgotten.
As we reflect the aftermaths of the 2014 EVD outbreak which took West Africa and the world by storm, causing West African economies to lose billions of dollars coupled with crippling effects to the region’s development agenda, we must never forget that in unison strong success is sure. Let’s be reminded that in our collective desire and will, that we can defeat any enemy no matter their size, capacity, and capability.
The story is also narrated in a better way when we all recognize, appreciate, and say thanks to the international community, especially the Government of the People’s Republic of China for bringing the first batch of medical consignments and other essential supplies which greatly enhanced the government’s response capacity.
Similarly, we must pay homage to our heroes (health workers), many whom loss their lives in the struggle to contain the virus, and for the great sacrifice they made on the frontline against this fearful enemy. The same must be said about the Liberia National Red Cross Society (LNRCS), MSF, and other local and international medical relief organizations that helped greatly to end the outbreak, which was declared as the world’s biggest public health emergency crisis.
We must never forget that our greatest defense against the EVD is to always increase our spending toward investment in monitoring and surveillance to ensure that we are on the safe side. New public health infrastructures must be built to cope with emerging challenges, as well as training specialists to effectively run and manage these institutions.
In an effort to strengthen its defense mechanism, the Government of Liberia recently established The National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL). The NPHIL was created as a result of the unprecedented Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in West Africa that claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people and infected more than 28,000.
An elderly man, believed to be infected with the EVD is being treated by health workers
The Ebola epidemic highlighted the need for the establishment of a public health institute in Liberia and in December 2016 the Bill to launch NPHIL passed through the Liberian legislature marking a critical milestone in its post-Ebola journey.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, NPHIL’s mission is to prevent and control public health threats by promoting healthy outcomes while serving as a source of knowledge and expertise. As the center of excellence for better health outcomes for Liberians through a strong health system, this Institute aims to strengthen existing infection prevention and control efforts, laboratories, surveillance, infectious disease control, public health capacity building, response to outbreaks, and monitor diseases with epidemic potential.
The goals of the NPHIL, amongst other things, are to contribute to the development and sustainability of the public health workforce. Other goals include developing, enhancing, and expanding the surveillance and response platform, develop and strengthen the laboratory system and public health diagnostics, develop, enhance, and expand process and structures to protect environmental and occupation health, as well as expand, conduct, and coordinate public health and medical research to inform Liberian public health policies.
As a way of guaranteeing their readiness for unexpected shocks, Governments in the sub-region, especially Guinean, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ghana, must never renege in consistently investing in the public health sector. Truly, we all have a chance to survive and that Ebola, combined with other emerging infectious diseases which pose the greatest public health threats to the human race, will be defeated, once we set in these motions as the most reliable, effective, and proactive mechanisms to combat future outbreaks.
Varney M. Kamara is the Senior Editor of Liberia’s ANALYST newspaper and Publisher-CEO of the Online “Liberia Network” news, Media Company. Mr. Kamara is also a trained investigative journalist with over 10 years’ experience in mainstream journalism.