Sarah Paige (left) on the front porch of the chief’s house in Koinadugu waiting for approval for the Ebola Survivor Corps to do work in the area.
When the United States took the global lead in combating the world’s deadliest Ebola epidemic in 2014, the White House and public and private organizations sent out an all-call for assistance in equipping health care workers on the front lines with better weapons to battle the disease.
That’s when Sarah Paige sprang into action.
As an assistant scientist and grant writer at the UW-Madison’s Global Health Institute, she tapped into UW’s Kibale EcoHealth Project, a long-term investigation of health and ecology in the region of Kibale National Park in Uganda, Africa. (Several years ago, Uganda was officially declared free of Ebola, an often fatal disease caused by viral infection.)
Before long — and thanks to successful crowdsourcing efforts via Indiegogo and the open innovation platform OpenIDEO — Paige created the Ebola Survivor Corps. “We wanted to elevate the status of Ebola survivors, leverage their inherent immunity to the disease and have them be the first responders to care, demystifying the health-seeking process and letting patients and their families know what to expect,” says Paige, executive director of the organization. “And we wanted to make this a long-term program and pay survivors for their service.”
Today, less than two years after that national all-call, the Ebola Survivor Corps has partnered with West African Medical Missions and the Koinadugu district health sector in a remote area of the Republic of Sierra Leone — the country hardest hit by the disease, with more than 14,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths reported since 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ESC staff in Sierra Leone includes a project manager, a project coordinator and five survivor health advocates, who fulfill ESC’s outreach mission.
A small team in the United States consists entirely of volunteers and includes scientists from the UW, Tulane University and the University of Texas at Austin, as well as business and health professionals in Madison and media consultants in Seattle.
Lina Moses, an epidemiologist from Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine who also is part of ESC, was on the ground in Sierra Leone doing work for Tulane’s Lassa fever program when Ebola struck the region.
She will speak at the UW Havens Center for Social Justice in the Health Sciences Learning Center, room 1306, on Thursday, April 28, at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and will focus on Moses’ experiences treating Ebola and her proposal for more compassionate and effective epidemic responses.
“Lina’s experience is one that nobody else has, before the world started talking about Ebola in Sierra Leone,” says Andrew Bennett, a Ph.D. student and emerging infections epidemiologist in the UW’s Department of Pathobiological Sciences and a member of the ESC team. “People are underestimating the amount of work that still needs to be done related to Ebola. There are still cases appearing, and it’s going to last for a long time.”
The ultimate goal of ESC is to prevent future Ebola outbreaks, as well as foster the psychological and sociological recovery efforts of those affected by the 2014 outbreak in West Africa.
What distinguishes ESC is the active role Ebola survivors play. Research shows survivors are immune from reinfection for up to 10 years — which greatly reduces the risk of the spread of infection when working with those afflicted by the disease.
“We’re developing a model that is powerful in and of itself, but it is also something that can be replicated in other situations,” says Marc Rosenthal, a longtime nurse who now works at UW Health’s Odana Atrium Clinic and is part of the ESC collective. He worked in a Sierra Leone Ebola treatment unit at the height of the epidemic and points to government agencies and community organizers working together in Africa as one way to effect significant change.
As far as Paige is aware, there is no other U.S.-based organization accomplishing the same type of work as ESC.
“I see us as part of the global community that is doing what I call ‘the good work,’” Rosenthal says. “This world is globalized, and we can’t wall off something that happens somewhere in Africa and say it doesn’t matter here. It matters, and has an impact on all of us.”
There will be other epidemics, Rosenthal notes. “If it’s not Ebola, it will be Lassa fever or the Zika virus. We have to strengthen our global health care infrastructure, and this group is one piece of that effort. This model needs to be replicated.”