- - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I do not live in fear of Ebola, and neither should you.

No, I’m not naive. I served as a missionary doctor in Africa for 11 years developing and administering a 250-bed mission hospital. I remember our first AIDS patient in the early 1980s. Though Elizabeth lay in a pool of diarrhea, the nurses were too afraid to enter her room. I had to help them overcome their fears by caring for her myself. We knew little about the virus; only that it was deadly and there was no cure.

As the first physician at Samaritan’s Purse, I led medical relief teams into Somalia (requiring armed guards) and southern Sudan (to treat an epidemic of relapsing fever), and I also organized the team in Rwanda (reopening the main hospital in Kigali during the genocide).

No, I’m not naive. And neither were Drs. Kent Brantly and Rick Sacra when they answered God’s call to serve in West Africa. They have now survived Ebola. They are personal friends and two of the 15,000 members of the Christian Medical Association that I now lead.

Their survival is an answer to prayer, but they are just two among thousands who have already been infected. And while we should not fear, our concern and response to Ebola must change. We are close to a tipping point. The number of Africans infected with and killed by Ebola is doubling every 25 days. Accounting for every case is difficult, but the CDC estimates that there will likely be more than 1.4 million cases by Jan. 20, unless control efforts are successful.

So what must be done to protect our families? The answer actually lies in serving others.

Some advocate sealing our borders or the borders in West Africa. That is naive. As the number of those infected skyrockets, local infections will spiral out of control. People will escape, desperate to find safety.

An old African proverb provides the solution. It says, “Bir mat ko lo,” meaning “Beat the fire while it is far.” The Great Chicago Fire that destroyed 100,000 homes was not started by a cow kicking over a lantern. The more likely account is that it was begun by a group of drunken men gambling in a barn. Instead of putting the fire out, they ran. Lesson: If you want to protect your home and family, put out the fire when it is small, before it directly threatens you.

It will not be easy, but it is possible if we don’t run and hide. Unfortunately, the U.S. government, which must take the lead, has dillydallied for three months, allowing the Ebola fire to grow, making it more difficult to extinguish.

This epidemic is worse than previous epidemics dating back to 1976, when Ebola was first recognized. In part, this is because it attacked urban areas and is spreading rapidly within dense populations. The Liberian health system was quickly overwhelmed. Without affordable protective equipment, health workers have abandoned their clinics and hospitals. People in the affected countries do not trust their governments and have been hostile to their inadequate interventions. The handling of bodies by family members and friends during funerals has thrown further fuel on the conflagration of this disease.

We dare not run away from this problem. We have to run to it, both to save lives in Africa and to prevent it from reaching other shores. Here are some steps we must take:

Use the military: Only the military has the logistical capacity to rapidly build isolation wards and transport supplies, equipment and personnel. In desperate situations, desperate people do terrible things. So the military is also needed for security. 

Fast track promising treatments and vaccines: You have to take calculated risks to prevent incalculable harm. 

Focus on home care of victims, and equip their families to do it: The proposed 1,700 isolation beds in 17 new treatment centers in Liberia are inadequate before they are even built. The numbers of those already infected will overwhelm them. Families must be trained and provided protective equipment so they can assist in caring for their loved ones. It’s going to take millions of disposable gowns, gloves and masks along with thousands of gallons of disinfectant. 

Mobilize and train church members to train and support these caregivers: According to the World Health Organization, religious organizations are the most trusted groups in Africa. Embracing the biblical command to “love their neighbors,” Christians in West Africa will risk their lives to help others.

Things we can do on the home front:

Intensify our efforts to screen international travelers: Thermal scanners can catch an early sign of infection: a fever. Transportation, customs and immigration personnel are being trained to look for symptoms. More healthcare personnel should be added. 

Isolate those infected and exposed: It takes direct contact with bodily fluids from Ebola patients to become infected. A total of 21 days of isolation and observation are required to rule out infection. 

Train hospital personnel to recognize signs and test individuals whenever suspicion arises: These efforts are already underway and need to be further expanded. 

Pray: Pray for God’s protection for those on the front lines who are risking their lives to save people, thereby saving others from this scourge.

It will cost millions to bring this plague to an end, but it will cost billions if we do nothing! President Obama’s plan is a move in the right direction, but it comes late. To save lives, it must be executed effectively and quickly. And it must be modified and expanded as the situation dictates.

The Ebola fire is growing rapidly. Now is the time to put it out. We cannot ignore the problem, shut our doors and hope it burns itself out. Unless we marshal our most effective efforts soon, it will be too late not only for Africa … but for us too.

David Stevens, M.D.,  is CEO of the Christian Medical Association.


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