Peace Corps informed me of the Ebola outbreak several months ago when it first appeared in Guinea in March. At that time, our medical officer informed us of the symptoms and what we should do to avoid contracting the virus. Since then, it’s spread to the other countries as highlighted on the map above. Senegal, which completely engulfs The Gambia, borders Guinea to the South (The Gambia can be seen at the top edge of this map). In the last few days, one hopefully isolated case of Ebola has been confirmed in Dakar, in Northern Senegal, meaning Ebola is both to the North and South of me.
At the borders, officials are looking for Ebola symptoms and taking temperatures of everyone crossing. The Ministry of Health is going on education campaigns to inform people of the severity of the virus. Village health volunteers have attended trainings to know what to look for and what they should do in the event of a suspected case. Posters and flyers have been posted throughout The Gambia warning people to avoid eating "bush meat," especially monkeys and bats.
Both Peace Corps The Gambia and Peace Corps Headquarters are monitoring the situation carefully. Our country director is working closely with the Ministry of Health and The United States Embassy here. All volunteers have an emergency action plan to implement in the event of an evacuation. The Peace Corps office is sending out regular updates via text. The risk for me as an education volunteer working in schools is very low. Ebola is not an airborne virus and must be transmitted through bodily fluids- saliva, blood, urine, semen, sweat. I am not a health care provider. For me, it shouldn't be difficult to avoid.
That being said, Ebola is out of control. Peace Corps Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have temporarily suspended all operations and volunteers have been sent home because of the severity of the outbreak. Should the outbreak spread to Senegal and/or The Gambia, the same may or may not happen here. Living here, I see firsthand the challenges involved in stopping its spread.
For one thing, West Africa, though consisting of many countries, is not a large area and there continues to be a lot of travel from country to country. I myself plan to travel to Dakar for a conference next week. Yes, they are checking for symptoms at the border but the symptoms can take anywhere between 2 and 21 days to manifest. Culturally, if someone is sick, they receive many visitors, and people are sick all the time. We’re talking about third world countries with poverty, limited infrastructure, a vastly uneducated population, superstitions, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and disease. It’s malaria season right now. The majority of people here get malaria at some point, usually multiple times in their lives. The symptoms of malaria include fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Onset symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, body ache, weakness, nausea, and vomiting. Do you see the problem? People die of what is assumed to be malaria, the body is prepared for burial, and the belongings (clothing, sheets, etc) are given away. The number of cases could be much higher than reported. Ignorance, superstitions, and distrust of Western Medicine have led to multiple cases of kidnapping or "rescuing" of Ebola patients and those in quarantine.
But not hopeless.
For those of you worried about my personal safety, (hi Mom), I reiterate that Ebola is not airborne, transmission is difficult, I am not a health care provider, and Peace Corps has a careful eye on the situation. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had any Ebola-inspired nightmares, but I do feel informed and safe.
For the bigger and more important picture, education, treatment, and vaccines are all in the works. The Gambia is listed as a country where possible trials of a vaccine would begin, though I have not heard any estimated timeline. This strain of Ebola carries a 50-60% fatality rate, much lower than the 90% fatality rates of previous strains.
I believe in the power of prayer and prayers can be heard throughout the world. I ask for the international community to keep West Africa in your prayers. Pray for the recovery those infected, the families of those who are lost, the safety of health care professionals, and the effectiveness of education campaigns and preventive measures. Our God is bigger than Ebola, and our world is best united. International support, resources, and expertise will be necessary in order to control this outbreak. Let us stand with West Africa, and persevere in hope.
-A Not So Hopeless Wanderer