After Ebola: Why we’re in it for the long haul
Two years ago today, I’m pretty sure that top of my reading list wasn’t the World Health Organisation’s “Statement on the 1st meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa”.
But within these dry and jargon-packed lines (or so my as then untrained eyes told me), lay a call to action that would help set Save the Children, myself and many of my colleagues on a course into the unknown.
An emergency declared
The Ebola outbreak was declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern’.
In reality, after more than 1,000 deaths, the epidemic was already spiralling out of control.
But the world’s health experts were finally sounding the alarm.
This announcement triggered a huge response from all those with the expertise, compassion and courage to help stop the spread.
Getting into action
What happened next was splashed across our news channels for months to come.
Looking back it almost seems like an alien world of protective suits and the inescapable smell of chlorine.
Everyone involved was stretched to the limit. But thanks to a superhuman effort the outbreak was curbed, and ultimately brought – albeit sputtering – into submission.
But it was too late for the 11,000 people who had already lost their lives to the disease.
Loss of lives
The truth is, local healthworkers and teams like ours in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea had been working heroically on the frontline of the epidemic for months. Long before the world truly woke up.
Ebola killed around 1 in 10 of Liberia’s doctors and 1 in 13 of the country’s nurses.
Sierra Leone lost 1 in 20 doctors and 1 in 14 nurses. Many lost their lives before the cavalry arrived.
The fight is not over
The TV cameras might have largely left, but the communities are still rebuilding their lives.
There have been no new cases since April, but small outbreaks having come and gone over the last year.
Health experts also warn that Ebola may now be endemic to West Africa. With that in mind, constant vigilance is required.
The long-term impact
Meanwhile the long term impact of Ebola is still clear.
Schools were closed for months, hitting children’s education and prospects.
Teen pregnancy increased and there are fears that the damage done to the already weak health systems could lead to a sharp rise in maternal deaths.
On top of that, thousands of children are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their parents and siblings.
Around a year ago I met Joshua, a fifteen-year-old boy who’d survived Ebola with the help of our Ebola Treatment Centre.
He’d lost many members of his family, including his father and little brother.
The physical and psychological scars ran deep. But with our support he was on the road to recovery.
Today, he’s just graduated to the next level of school. He told our team: “When you study enough you will have the chance to pass – but that exam is not fun.”
Reflecting on how far he’s come, he says: “I was so hopeless. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t eat and drink. But now I will eat, talk, play with my friends – do everything with my friends.”
Keeping up the momentum
It’s so important that we keep up the fight to overcome the impact of Ebola.
The dangers of an underfunded and under-prepared health system have been laid bare.
We must keep the momentum and the commitment that built up in the immediate response, and use it to help children in the worst affected countries have a healthier, more prosperous future.
What we’re doing
As an organisation, we’re in it for the long haul.
In Sierra Leone we’re working with the Ministry of Health to develop a better system for managing their patient information. It will help to improve public health by making sure there’s accurate, reliable information about the health of the country.
Thanks to support from the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) over the last year, we’ve also helped more than 1,200 children in Sierra Leone return to school, and we’ve trained 200 teachers to give catch up classes tailored for Ebola survivors and other vulnerable children.
And we’ve set up a child protection case management system to make sure that vulnerable children – both those affected by Ebola and those who aren’t – get the help they need.
Joshua is just one of thousands of children whose spirit and determination is helping them move on from Ebola.
We must make sure we’re with them every step of the way.
When disaster strikes, we have to act fast to save children’s lives. Help us be there when children need us – donate to our Emergency Fund now.
Find out more about how we responded to the Ebola Crisis
Names have been changed to protect identity.