The frequent Ebola outbreaks across African countries over the past two decades often pose the most risk to the health workers tasked with containing them.
Back in 2014, during the continent’s worst ever outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, it took the joint effort of a coalition of health workers drawn from several countries, working with the African Union, to stop the outbreak. But they did so working under shoddy conditions, remembers Mcginger Ibeneme, a Nigerian doctor who spent six months between 2014 and 2015 in Sierra Leone as a front-line healthcare worker and shared his experiences in a Twitter thread.
“I found the African Union to be disorganized,” Ibeneme, 39, tells Quartz. “There were serious strategic problems from accommodation to feeding of doctors.”
With the 2014 outbreak being the first in West Africa, health workers in the region were often dealing with a deadly virus epidemic they had never been trained for. And just as governments and local health ministries were attempting to teach citizens best practices in a bid to control the spread of the disease, health workers like Ibeneme were often learning on the job—at a high risk.
Across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone—the three worst hit countries, the Ebola outbreak had a heavy human toll, resulting in nearly 30,000 cases and over 11,000 deaths. The outbreak also took its toll on the economies of those three countries jointly costing them an estimated $2.2 billion in GDP.
In Nigeria, the outbreak proved fatal for Stella Adadevoh, the doctor who is credited for literally giving up her life to stall the impact of the disease in Nigeria. While in charge of a Lagos clinic in August 2014, Adadevoh admitted a visiting Liberian government official who soon tested positive for Ebola. Despite the patient’s protests and reported diplomatic pressure to release him, Adadevoh heroically chose to quarantine and treat him and, in doing so, prevented what would likely have been a much larger and catastrophic outbreak in Africa’s most populous country. Ultimately, she got infected and died within weeks. A controversial movie was made about about her life in 2016.
At some point in Sierra Leone, Ibeneme feared his story would have a similar ending. After treating an American health worker who passed out and later tested positive for Ebola, Ibeneme thought he had been infected. But while the American was flown back to the United States for treatment, Ibeneme says he was never tested. He chose to quarantine himself for a 21-day period while fearing for his life.
Once their mission was accomplished and the Ebola outbreak successfully stopped, some of the health workers who worked under the African Union’s coalition were forgotten—until now. Four years after he returned to Nigeria, Ibeneme has received a medal of recognition from the African Union. But it did not come in an elaborate ceremony, or indeed a ceremony of any kind.
Instead, his medal was posted to a government office in Port Harcourt, the oil hub in southern Nigeria where Ibeneme went to pick it up this week. In photos shared on social media, Ibeneme says he is pictured with friends and colleagues pinning the medal on him, rather than African Union officials.
As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) grapples with its worst ever with over 2,000 cases, its health workers are facing even worse odds of survival in the line of duty. In addition to the risk of infection, the workers also face a wholly different prospect of death at the hands of armed rebel militias that dominate DRC’s infected northeast region.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been 174 attacks on health facilities or workers in DRC’s northeast in 2019 alone with one of those resulting in the high-profile killing of Dr Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, a prominent Cameroonian epidemiologist with WHO.