Ebola: What my experience taught me


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Philip Ireland: I survived being infected with Ebola in Liberia

Many have died due to lack of knowledge about the disease, he says

Editor’s Note: Dr. Philip Ireland is an emergency medicine physician in Monrovia, Liberia. He is collaborating with the World Health Organization on public outreach supporting Liberia’s recovery from the Ebola epidemic. The views expressed are his own.

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Last summer, I suffered the first symptoms of a disease I knew only too well – the rapid onset of an intense headache, followed by a fever and elevated heart rate. I sought help right away, fearing that I had contracted Ebola in my job as an emergency medicine physician at John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia.

But my colleagues at the nearby Ebola treatment center confused my condition with malaria and sent me home.

The misdiagnosis could have cost the lives of my family and countless others. However, my mother sent my wife and children away, donned rain gear and rubber household gloves for protection, and, washing her hands often, cared for me until it became clear that Ebola was the cause of my deteriorating condition. I was finally able to get the advanced medical care that allowed me to recover.

Philip Ireland
Philip Ireland

I beat the odds in so many ways. But as the disease rears its head in the country again, Liberians should not have to depend on luck and our mothers’ care to survive a public health threat like this.

Physicians, nurses and other health workers are very badly needed in our country, yet many of us have died because we lacked knowledge of the disease and how to prevent it.

ndeed, when Ebola first took hold in 2014, health workers were largely underpaid and poorly prepared for what was coming.

Citizens and caregivers at high risk

And we were no more likely to survive the disease than were any of our patients, with the overwhelming number of people we treated making us 20 to 30 times more vulnerable to infection than members of the general public.

According to the World Health Organization, Ebola claimed the lives of more than 150 health workers in Liberia, while more than 4,500 people died in our country. This is especially tragic as the country still has not recovered from the devastating civil wars of recent decades, conflicts that have left my hospital in far worse condition than it was in the 1970s.

Even now, we do not have a reliable source of electricity to power our operations throughout the night. We have no advanced diagnostics tools or patient care technology – not even a dialysis machine.

Despite such constraints, my country has been able to beat back Ebola. Some experts had expected to see more than 1 million Liberians and Sierra Leoneans infected with the disease by January 2015. Instead, by pulling together and practicing proper infection control, we have arrived at a point where new cases can be contained when detected. Liberians can finally stop holding their breath.

However, the details of my own harrowing experience illustrate the small ways in which an inadequate health care system can fuel an epidemic. For example, it can be difficult initially to differentiate between malaria and Ebola, and our hospital lacks the tools that would tell us when it is time to ask for help containing a disease with the potential to endanger the public.

Even if we had the tools, they would be useless if we haven’t trained our technicians to use them.

Need for a new health system

In addition, we also need to address the health problems that have been neglected under the onslaught of the recent epidemic.

Researchers believe our weakened health care system contributed to a number of other crises. Last year, for example, malaria killed almost 11,000 more people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea than it had the year before. Clearly, we need basic health services so our people can live longer and healthier lives, and with this in mind, the hiring of well-trained doctors and technicians, nurses and physician assistants should be our nation’s number one priority, as outlined in the government’s Ebola recovery plan.

My personal experience suggests this army of young people will be vital to protecting all of us. By training them here in Liberia, where I was trained, we are more likely to keep them here. And while national pride will not stop a viral outbreak on its own, it provides a strong foundation for building a new health system, a resilient system that can handle a new outbreak while not losing ground with malaria.

My mother, like thousands of other everyday Liberians, was on her own when she saved my life because she had no other choice. The only support she received was from concerned colleagues who called out instructions through the window; they were afraid to come inside. Neither my mother, nor any other caregiver, should ever again have to be so alone.

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