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What It’s Like To Fight Ebola When the World Stops Listening

Jul 09, 2015
TIME Health
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My first deployment into the Ebola outbreak was in September, when I was sent to Liberia. After three months there I was eventually stationed in Guinea, another Ebola-affected region where I am currently serving as an emergency response coordinator.

Over the last year, the Ebola outbreak has infected more than 27,500 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and killed more than 11,200 of those people. It's still ongoing. When I first joined the response, the situation was very serious. Cases were increasing exponentially, and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was putting out calls for help and for more actors to get involved. The calls were largely ignored and unfulfilled until later.

Today in Guinea there are many people and organizations involved, but there is virtually no external interest. Despite the fact that we are still seeing cases of Ebola every week—something that would have been considered a disaster just two years ago—the outbreak has stopped dominating the public conversation and news cycle.

Have we noticed the world has stopped paying attention? Yes, we have. Are we surprised by it? No, we’re not. It’s the news cycle, and we know that. Many of my colleagues have a healthy dose of cynicism that goes along with idealism. We wouldn’t pursue this job if we didn’t, because you don’t last long if you let yourself be disappointed. People lose interest. It happened with Haiti, it happened with Nepal, it happens every single time. In some ways, it reinforces our conviction that this is the right place for us to be.

We still have about twelve to eighteen cases of Ebola per week in Guinea, and a third of the cases we saw last week were not on a contact list—meaning they were surprises. When there are unexpected cases, it’s dreadful from a public health point of view. The current situation is better than it has been, but it’s not as good as it should be. In an absolutely perfect and best-case scenario, we could see an end for Ebola in Guinea by October. But that’s an optimistic estimate.

We are aware everyone is tired. The national authorities are tired— they have been working on this non-stop and they just want the outbreak to end. The people of Guinea are tired of the uncertainty and fear. This is an observant Muslim country, and people are very affected by the fact that they can’t go on pilgrimage to Mecca until the epidemic is over. The public is tired of hearing about Ebola. MSF has been working on this for more than a year. We are tired.

But the outbreak is not over yet. And while the lack of attention is normal, it’s not very helpful. The problems that contributed to the scale of this outbreak still exist in many places. People need to realize that the World Health Organization (WHO) is only as good as its member states. If people want to help, they should insist that their country respects its commitments to donations and spending. They should realize that these problems do not exist in isolation and that to some extent they affect everybody.

We understand that people cannot believe that the Ebola outbreak is not over. Neither can we. But we can’t stop paying attention.

Anna Halford is the Ebola Emergency Coordinator in Guinea for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

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