By Rae Avery
Just a few short weeks since West Africa was declared officially Ebola free, the World Health Organization has confirmed a second new case in Sierra Leone. The first victim was 22-year-old student Mariatu Jalloh, who died of the illness on January 12th. The aunt who provided care for her has just been diagnosed.
Skilled healthcare workers will be vital in the coming weeks, as more people who cared for Marie Jalloh, who have been under observation in quarantine, begin to show symptoms.
While it may be tempting for westerners to dismiss the deadly Ebola outbreak as being nothing more than a terrifying memory, the plight for the local healthcare workers who dealt with the epidemic head-on has not ended. Many who provided care for the sick last year have yet to be paid for that work. Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, a renowned Boston University doctor and infectious disease expert, saw the bravery of these men and women firsthand when she opted to go join the fight against Ebola in person. "They are trying to make ends meet at all times,” says Dr. Bhadelia, “and they were going to work every day risking their lives and not getting paid for it."
These were not volunteers, though they soldiered on without pay, in the face of a brutal epidemic, to help however they could. The work they signed on for was indeed dangerous. In fact, the CDC reported that Kenema District (the very area in Sierra Leone where Dr. Bhadelia had been working) had the highest percentage of Ebola-stricken healthcare workers in the country. These local nurses were promised “hazard pay,” as well as protective gear – two things they would often end up having to go without.
Nurses known to have treated Ebola patients have been driven out of villages and kicked out of their homes, often with no notice. Many attempted to go back to previous employment only to be told never to return. Still more have been shunned by friends and family.
Stigma surrounding Ebola and its level of infectiousness stem from a lack of public knowledge and education about the disease. Since it is so contagious and so deadly, Ebola workers are feared almost as much as the disease itself. Such “Ebola shaming” occurs globally, not just in West Africa, but also here in the United States. After returning to the US, Kaci Hickox, a returning nurse from Doctors Without Borders, found herself under a quarantine in New Jersey imposed by Governor Chris Christie despite testing negative for ebola and against medical opinions. After much harassment and media attention this woman, Hickox asked the public to “stop calling me the ebola nurse,” which is reasonable, considering she never had ebola in the first place. Hickox is now suing for civil liberties violations surrounding her unlawful quarantine.
Despite all, these heroic nurses continue to risk their lives to provide care for others. Dr. Bhadelia is inspired by their commitment to such work in the face of unwarranted persecution, watching friends and colleagues perish from the disease, the very real possibility of contracting it themselves, and not knowing if or when their paycheck will come to compensate them for this work. Says Bhadelia, “If that is not a testament to the heroism of these workers, I am not sure what is.”
Dr. Bhadelia, moved by the plight of these brave healthcare workers with no other way to support their families, decided to take matters into her own hands. On June 19th of this year, she set up a fundraising webpage called Ebola Workers with the goal of raising $50,000. Only seven months later, they have raised over $42,600.
The newest cases of Ebola have prompted health officials to reopen Ebola treatment centers, and return to screening measures, including highway checkpoints.