Among the groups on the forefront in the international effort to address the Ebola crisis in West Africa is Boston-based Partners in Health (PIH). The group is promising to keep staff and volunteers in Liberia and Sierra Leone for several more years to fight Ebola and address other public health concerns in those countries.
Helping to lead the PIH initiative is chief nursing officer Sheila Davis, who returned to Boston earlier this month and remains largely confined to her home in Roslindale.
She joins Morning Edition Wednesday to talk about how the ongoing crisis reveals how vital public health infrastructures are.
Sheila Davis: Many times more people are dying, not because of Ebola, but because of this weakened health system. So even the facilities that have been open to provide care for other things — such as malaria, safe child birth — those in most counties are closed. So more people are dying, because they're not being able to get health care for other, non-Ebola reasons.
A lot of the attention to both countries has been just treating the acute Ebola. But, if we don't work at the same time to build up this system, we're going to see these acute outbreaks or hotspots for quite a long time.
On whether PIH had any idea how serious the Ebola outbreak would become:
SD: I don't think we did. The first cases we heard about in probably March, April or May. Like all of the other previous Ebola outbreaks, the thought was it would show up and it would be quickly gone and a few hundred cases would be there worldwide, and we would stop hearing about it very quickly.
And then, during the summer, when we were hearing more and more about cases being found in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, we had two smaller nonprofits that we worked with in those areas, and we had been in contact with them. And they, as well as the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone, asked us to come in and help.
On whether an opportunity was missed early on to stop the Ebola outbreak near its beginning:
SD: I think when we look back there were a lot of opportunities where interventions or things could have happened where this could have changed the outlook of this.
Chronically, the World Health Organization is not well-funded. We don't really have, I think, a global approach to health in a very proactive way. Areas where outbreaks have taken place, they are places where there's little to no health care that's available.
If we had spent a lot of the money that we've spent now fighting this two years ago, three years ago, and had this health system be built in a very different way, this outbreak, I'm sure, would be nothing like it is now.
On whether she sees progress after these many months:
SD: Liberia — there's certainly progress. We certainly have seen declining cases. Over the past few days there has been a small hotspot that's appeared in Liberia — 49 cases over the past 10 days or so, which is very worrisome. In Sierra Leone, I have to say, it's been very, very challenging. The epidemic has taken a different course there, and we're continuing to have hotspots in different areas around the country at the same time.
Click on the audio player above to listen to the full interview.