Meet the Australia Awards Alumni on the Frontlines of the Ebola Crisis in West Africa

Since the first cases were reported in the West African country of Guinea in March last year, this deadly, highly infectious virus has systematically spread to other parts of West Africa and beyond, with additional cases detected as far out as Europe and the United States of America.

On August 8 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General declared this outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. This is Ebola.

According to the WHO, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the largest and most complex outbreak since the virus was first discovered in 1976. Transmitted to people from wild animals and spread through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, the WHO claims that there have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. As at 15 February 2015, there were 22,253 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola in six affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Spain and the United States of America, and two previously affected countries Nigeria and Senegal) with 9,380 reported deaths, primarily in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

While scientists around the world scramble to find a preventative and cure for the virus, health workers in the hardest-hit West African countries are battling to contain and prevent further spread of the virus amidst what the WHO describes as ‘very weak health systems, lacking human and infrastructural resources, having only recently emerged from long periods of conflict and instability’.

Australia Awards Scholarships Alumni are at the forefront of the battle against Ebola – hard at work in their respective countries to contain the virus. Hawa Wanita Page is from Liberia, one of the worst hit by the Ebola outbreak. She graduated from a Masters of International Public Health at the University of Sydney in 2012.

Before the Ebola crisis, in her role as the Adolescents Program Coordinator for UNICEF, Liberia, Hawa supported adolescents in promoting sexual and reproductive health services, basic life skills such as parenting, and prevention of harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage.

With the onset of the Ebola crisis in Liberia, Hawa joined forces with the UNICEF team to train 500 adolescent girls from two highly infectious Ebola communities – West Point and New Kru Town – in preventing new Ebola infections. These girls in turn used their new-found knowledge to create awareness in their respective communities.

Hawa further trained these adolescent girls on effective communication skills, community entry skills, and personal hygiene. UNICEF supported her efforts by providing the girls with personal protective gear as well as overall guidance of their activities. These activities were implemented as part of the A-LIFE (Adolescents Leading Intensive Fight-against Ebola) campaign, which has since become a crucial part of anti-Ebola program in the country.

Further, Hawa contributed to the development of standards, strategies and guidelines for the Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU). As a result, approximately 400 households (4000 individuals) have been reached with Ebola preventive messages. She has also contributed to the development and implementation of Alternative Care Guidelines for children abandoned or orphaned by Ebola.

Hawa acknowledges the role her Australian-acquired skills have played in the fight against Ebola. “Advocacy, communication policy and analysis skills gained from the Award have been the keystone of all my achievements in the fight against Ebola, thus making my impact in the Ebola fight felt,” says Hawa.

Similarly, in the neighbouring Ebola-ravaged West African country of Sierra Leone, Australia Awards Alumni Mukeh Kenneth Fahnbulleh has his hands full supporting the coordination of the country’s response to Ebola at the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) as part of Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response.

Mukeh returned home at the end of his studies in Australia in July 2014 to a country in the grips of the Ebola epidemic. He quickly shelved plans to take up a position with the Health Economics Department in the Ministry of Health and Sanitation in favour of an appointment as Operations Officer at the Emergency Operations Centre, headquartered at the WHO’s compound in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

Although the Government of Sierra Leone, with the support of its citizens and international partners manages Sierra Leone’s large-scale response, as part of the Operations Section, Mukeh is tasked with achieving the overall goal of the National Ebola Response Plan, which is to address and rapidly reverse the impact of the Ebola outbreak.

However, due to the dynamic profile of the epidemic, Mukeh reports Ebola slowing down in one part of the country and increasing in other parts. Moreover, Sierra Leone is bordered by two other Ebola-affected countries (Guinea and Liberia) with porous multiple entry points, which continue to pose a threat to Sierra Leone’s containment efforts. Nevertheless, Mukeh is confident his team and the government’s broader response will succeed in controlling further spread of the disease.

While the work is still clearly in progress, Mukeh acknowledges that financial, human and technical resources have helped in reducing the impact of the virus in the country. He also cites current national plans to review anti-Ebola strategies for effectiveness in order to implement structures that will mitigate any future outbreaks.

Mukeh is grateful for his timely Australian-gained qualifications in equipping him with the necessary skills to tackle the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. “I have found the knowledge and skills I gained in Australia immensely helpful in this Ebola outbreak. In my studies, I was trained on Public Health Interventions and scarce resources management in the delivery of health care services. These skills are all crucial to the current environment we are operating in,” he says.

Among others, Mukeh and Hawa are not only powerful examples of how Australia Awards Alumni are having an impact on pressing issues in Africa, they also demonstrate how specialised knowledge and skills can make a difference. Ebola is a public health threat and containing and/or eradicating it will require concerted efforts worldwide.

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