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By Alhaji N'jai
Three decades ago, when I was a little boy in my village, Ganya, in northern Sierra Leone, I remembered seeing a man with a high fever, bleeding from his eyes and face. That image has stayed with me over the years. I remember my mum whisking me away quickly, saying the man had been bewitched. He was abandoned and left to die. We subsequently learned that other members of his family had also died, including his sister.
Ever since the current outbreak of Ebola began in Guinea, I have wondered if what I saw as a child could have been some form of a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola.
Today, as a biomedical scientist, I have many questions lingering in my mind. The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is spreading rapidly. So far more than 900 deaths have been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, with potential for a global spread, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have declared a Level One alert.
The deadly nature of this outbreak in West Africa raises many questions: Why now? And what is so different about this outbreak? Has the virus always being circulating in the region and gone undetected? Are we only noticing an outbreak because it hit health centers and workers, who in turn infected their patients and relatives?
If it has been around a while, how have people traditionally dealt with Ebola? What conditions precipitated the current deadly outbreak?
Will Ebola now become a mainstream disease with a widespread geographic range? If so, how will this influence the natural resistance to virus?
Finally, what is a workable model of intervention, taking into account local, indigenous knowledge systems?
The earliest recorded outbreaks of the viral hemorrhagic disease occurred simultaneously in 1976 in Nzara village, Sudan, and Yambuku village, DR Congo, near the Ebola River, from which the virus was named. Like previous outbreaks in East/Central Africa, the first case in West Africa was reported in the forested border regions of Guinea, and quickly spread to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Specific fruit bats that inhabit this forest region are eaten as a delicacy by locals. They are believed to be natural reservoirs of the Ebola virus. Although the bats show no symptoms of disease, human infection generally occurs through direct contact with the body fluids of bats, fruits contaminated by bats, or indirectly through exposure to body fluids (blood, urine, sweat, saliva, semen) of infected individuals or non-human primates, who are also victims of Ebola virus.
Although deadly, Ebola is neither airborne nor highly contagious and therefore can be quickly contained with adequate public health infrastructure. The inability to contain the deadly West African outbreak can be attributed to a poor health care system that is just recovering from a ten-year war, and the virtually non-existent public health systems in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
Fear and misconceptions about the deadly virus among the people are further exacerbated by seeing medical personnel in white space suits arriving in their villages.
This is a region where war, politics, and ethnic rivalries have created distrust, and lack of quality education fuels conspiracy theories. The UN World Health Organization has also not done a good job of reaching out to locals or building trust and confidence.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa speaks to much bigger problems with adequate local infrastructure and sustainable development.
Despite recent economic gains, Sierra Leone is ranked 184th out of 189 countries in the 2014 UN Human Development Index report.
In the outbreak region, rapid urbanization, mining, and widespread deforestation have probably increased the risk to human populations as they search for food and wood, and eat bat species from typically forbidden areas.
Sierra Leone, a major exporter of rice in early 60's, now depends on imports and aid for food security. Bats and other wildlife have become a valuable source of protein.
To curb bat-eating, which leads to Ebola, requires investment in food security, nutrition education, and sustainable agriculture.
The news about infected patients from the United States getting treatment, as Africans were left to die, left people feeling even more distrustful.
African governments have failed to invest in their own people, building technical capacity, infrastructure and institutions, and quality education that enables people to effectively manage their resources and better respond to changes in their environment. Beyond aid, donations, mining, industrialization, big corporate buildings, and glittering office towers, we need a sustainable path to development.
That is why we formed Project 1808, Inc., a nonprofit organization with a student chapter at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, which is dedicated to improving community livelihood by promoting quality education.
Our mantra is Building The Me for Stronger Families and Better Communities.
Project 1808 currently operates in Madison, Wisconsin, and Kabala, Koinadugu District, Sierra Leone, where our mission is focused on:
1) Educational support for primary and secondary school students
2) Community engagement through small-scale projects, learning, and service.
3) Building capacity for sustained quality of life through global and local school, community, and university partnership.
Our global health and sustainability innovation partnerships with UW Madison and Sierra Leone Universities have trained more than 600 young Sierra Leoneans from elementary to university levels on health programs (water, hygiene, and sanitation; nutrition and health; waste disposal and management; sexual health and teenage pregnancy; dental hygiene), community and environment (community mapping, culture and deforestation), and career and self development, including entrepreneurships and leadership trainings.
We taught hygiene, hand-washing and prevention of infectious diseases such as Ebola and malaria long before the current outbreak.
We facilitated partnerships between the Kabala School for the Blind and the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, as well as Madison's O'Keeffe Middle School and Project 1808 students in Kabala, Sierra Leone.
Through such specific global and local school-community-university partnerships, we practice the concept of thinking globally and acting locally, enhancing the exchange of knowledge, increasing cultural competency, and expanding the worldview of all of our participants.
Finally, we are working on building a university institute that will expand on Project 1808’s school-university-community model. The university we envision will offer a unique, integrated and sophisticated open-holistic learning environment that embraces and builds the local culture supported by Project 1808’s collaborative network of schools, communities, universities, and partners globally. By linking youth education to community needs in the most disadvantaged regions, we hope to enhance creativity and innovation and develop a rising generation of wise, practical, and compassionate leaders. You can learn more about Project 1808 or support our work by visiting our website http://www.project1808.org/ or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alhaji N’jai, Ph.D., is the founder and chief strategist of Project 1808, Inc, Madison Wisconsin; Co-Host of Panafrica Radio Show, WORT 89.9 FM Madison, Wisconsin.