Notre Dame unites to fight Ebola

Eck Institute raises funds for urgently needed medical supplies

When news broke of the outbreak of Ebola in Liberia, “We knew we had to do something,” says Katherine Taylor, director of operations for the Eck Institute for Global Health and interim director of global health training. “Ebola in West Africa is a crisis in our own family,” she says. “We felt we couldn’t stand around and do nothing. This campaign is how we transformed our concern into action.”

The Eck Institute for Global Health, along with partners from the Initiative for Global Development and the Ford Family Program in Human Development and Solidarity, are spearheading an effort (ND Unite to Fight Ebola on Facebook. com/NDUnite) to collect funds to pay for medical supplies to send to Notre Dame friends in West Africa, including registered nurse Yassah Lavelah.

Lavelah was one of 25 young African leaders from 17 countries who spent six weeks on campus this past summer as part of the Obama administration’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders initiative. The group was hosted on campus through the Mendoza College of Business and the Initiative for Global Development.

The U.S. State Department offered to extend Lavelah’s visa, but (she wrote in a blog post for blogs. “How could I have remained in Washington, D.C., when my mother, brothers, sisters and the people I love be sentenced to death by Ebola by virtue of the snail pace response? I decided to return to Liberia on July 31 and help when the crisis was heating up.”

Lavelah works as a nurse at ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) Hospital and the Ministry of Health Detached Field Hospital. In addition to attending patients now due to the Ebola crisis, she conducts workshops and lectures on disease prevention and other safety measures. Lavelah is also a nurse at the Ma V. Maternity Clinic, which she established with her mother outside Monrovia in 2005.

The Notre Dame group hopes to be able to get the funds converted into supplies and sent to West Africa. The two-week effort raised nearly $23,000, and the first container of supplies will soon be on its way. They hope to continue to raise more money to fill another container.

ND Unite is focusing on supplies such as protective gear as requested by ELWA and the Ma V. Clinic. Hundreds of health care workers have already been infected or died from the disease, which has an estimated 70 percent fatality rate. Health care personnel are going out into the community where ‘personal protective equipment’ is a Columbia raincoat.

Yassah Lavelah ( unite): “We did not even have gloves, protective clothing, hand sanitizers or chlorine solutions to do anything in case someone got infected. In Liberia, items like hand sanitizers are usually for the wealthy if you are lucky enough to find it on the market … our international colleagues arrive with all their gears and equipment while we often watch in dismay because we cannot even get gloves or masks in most cases, but we refuse to abandon our people…”

Supplies are being shipped via a trusted partner, the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach, a small Catholic organization based in Springfield, Illinois. A ministry of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, the organization is a surplus recovery organization that gets supplies to affected areas.

Notre Dame alumni in central Illinois have been very involved in the organization over the years, says Taylor, and “are excited to be able to partner with the University on such short notice while the need is so urgent.”

Supplies are also on the way to the Diocesan hospital in Makeni, Sierra Leone, where Catherine Bolten, assistant professor of anthropology and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, conducts field research. She has worked in Sierra Leone since 2003, focusing on issues of memory, poverty, morality and post-war development.

In a separate personal effort, Bolten has raised $11,000 from Notre Dame colleagues, family and friends to support relief efforts in Makeni.

“I was moved to action when Ebola reached Makeni in Sierra Leone. A friend of mine died of the disease, as did his family. I need to channel my personal grief into something productive,” she says. She had been urging people to donate to charities, but realized she could get supplies there herself faster. “I put out a call to my department and institute to see if there was interest in making private donations for the cause.”

She wired an initial payment of $5,000 this week — the money has already been used to purchase 7,500 kilos of rice and three bales of Notre Dame unites to fight Ebola clean sheets for distribution to 300 families.

“They are trying to complement efforts to keep people in quarantine by providing them with food and clean bedding,” she says. “A lack food is what drives people out of quarantine.”

“I was incredibly touched by the people I didn’t know who wanted to donate,” Bolten says. “There was a spectacular outpouring of love and support from the Notre Dame community. People were thanking me for giving them a way to support it.”

Yassah Lavelah ( unite): “Some people blame us for the spread of the virus as a result of cultural practices, etc. While some of that may be true, what do you do when your sick relative is turned away from the hospital? Do you walk away or stand by and watch them die? In fact, some people make the conscious decision to die while preserving the humanity of their dying relatives than to save themselves and live with their conscience for the rest of their lives.”

“It’s the biology of the disease — with an incubation period of two to 21 days, it’s a difficult thing to identify infected individuals before they manifest symptoms,” she says. “The U.S. can control an outbreak within our own borders. This first case is a wake-up call. There’s a lot of fear among the public due to the nature of the disease — and books they’ve read and movies they’ve seen.”

An epidemic is always the threat of any emerging disease. “We could be exporting a disease as easily as importing it. Ebola is now the posterchild for why we need a system of global health worldwide. It can’t be controlled at the country level. It requires a coordinated global effort.”

In a coincidence of timing, earlier in the spring Taylor wrote an article for the magazine Inside INdiana Business, on the subject of why Hoosiers should care about global health.

There’s an economic argument in favor of making Indiana a center for research, development and commercialization of new products with worldwide markets, she noted:

“From a public health perspective, Indiana benefits by having new drugs and technologies to treat disease right here in our own state. In addition, reducing the disease burden in other countries reduces the likelihood that new cases are imported to Indiana by travelers and immigration in this interconnected world we live in.”

The piece was published just a few months before Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed as the first Ebola case in the United States.

Yassah Lavelah, from her Facebook page: “I can’t say how much love I feel whenever I see a comment from one of my ND family. Your words of encouragement and prayers are also another source of strength and comfort. Thanks so much as you continue to keep is in your prayers and strive to help us.”

This story was originally published in NDWorks.