The World Health Organization recently declared the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) a public health emergency of international concern. Although the disease is still contained to the remote, violent and often unyielding wilds of the DRC, it does evoke memories of the devastating outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014. It is an event that took the lives of more than 11,000 people and is a reminder of the medical professionals who volunteer and risk their lives in order to help others.
For those that may or may not remember, the 2014 Ebola pandemic started in December of the previous year in Guinea after the funeral of a child. The little boy had died of Ebola, but that was only discovered months later by epidemiologists trying to find the source of the outbreak. They still don’t know how he became infected because no one is really alive to tell the tale. In West Africa, it’s common for several family members to handle and touch the body during the burial process. Unfortunately, this tradition had deadly results. After the funeral, most of the child’s immediate family members became sick and died. The disease spread soon started to spread.
Previously, Ebola had been relegated to some small outbreaks in extremely isolated locations like the jungles and vast landscape of the DRC, Uganda, and South Sudan. Although the virus is deadly and incredibly infectious, it is not very contagious since someone has to come in contact with the fluids of an infected individual to catch the disease. Ebola is type of hemorrhagic fever and has five different varieties. The Zaire strain is the most lethal and the source of recent cases in West Africa and the DRC.
Due to the isolated nature of previous epidemics, it was much easier for public health authorities to contain the disease. No treatments have ever been developed and the virus was mostly limited to labs as one of the rare Biosafety Level 4 pathogens for research purposes. But in West Africa the borders are more populous and porous. The disease soon spread from Guinea to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. The number of cases were also increasing, alarming global public health professionals but, for the most part, the rest of the world was content to mostly ignore the growing crisis.
In the summer of 2014, I was working for Samaritan’s Purse and had the opportunity to occasionally assist, in an administrative capacity, the U.S. based response team working in a Liberian hospital treating Ebola patients. As a result, I know a bit more about Ebola than most, for what that’s worth, and later worked with Dr. Kent Brantly, the first American who contracted Ebola and was successfully treated at Emory University Hospital. I also had the opportunity to research Ebola treatments for Dr. Lance Plyler, the physician who gave Dr. Brantly the lifesaving ZMapp treatment, the only drug that had some possibility of minimizing the effects of the disease and perhaps saved Dr. Brantly’s life.
It was a crazy summer to say the least. Five years later, life is much calmer in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. But as the recent crisis in the DRC continues to grow, it is a great reminder to pray for the many health professionals, nurses and doctors, who risk their lives every day treating patients who have Ebola.
For those unfamiliar with the progression of the disease, Ebola often results in an agonizingly painful and violent death as the body breaks down from the inside out. Medical professionals continue to do what they can to treat patients, but mostly all they can do is provide fluids, support and hope that the patient’s immune system is strong enough to fight off the deadly virus. There are currently some treatments or vaccines that have been through minimal testing, but most are still in the research phase and aren’t ready for large-scale distribution.
In order to try and treat the patients, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals often risk their lives to serve those that are sick and often dying. It is a dangerous business. In the 2014 outbreak, at least 600 of the 17,000 Ebola cases were among healthcare workers (reported in December 2014). In some cases, the country’s leading physicians died.
Medical professionals also face violent attacks from local communities, who are often fearful of the disease, suspicious of medical teams and try to rely on traditional faith healers (i.e. witch doctors) over medical treatments. Earlier this month, two community health workers engaged in Ebola prevention were killed in the DRC. The country is also relatively unstable, and there are certain areas where it is too dangerous for medical professionals to even attempt to assess the situation. A recent rebel attack occurred in an area suspected to have Ebola patients, which raises concerns that the disease will continue to spread as there is no way to access the infected.
To work as a physician or nurse in some of these situations is highly dangerous, but many continue to do this in countries across the world. I’m thankful I’ve had the chance to meet and work with many of these great and incredible medical professionals, who take time away from family and friends to serve on the front lines in the Name of Jesus Christ in natural disasters and epidemics. It isn’t easy, and I’ve seen the toll that it can take, but the risks are so often worth the rewards. They truly reflect the passage in Matthew 25:45, which The Message paraphrases the verses as, ‘Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to Me.’
So as the Ebola crisis in the DRC continues, pray for those on the front lines. These men and women often go to work uncertain of what the day might hold. They wear stifling hot protective suits that covers their entire body in order to spend time praying, serving and trying to heal those that are often poor, destitute and desperate.
Photo from Flickr account MONUSCO in Beni, DRC