Northeast Times

Volunteers return from Liberia before outbreak

Somerton United Methodist Church members were working on a school in the village of Ghenwein in January, but were back home before the largest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus began this spring.

  • Building a future: Somerton United Methodist Church members Dennis Fisher and Jacob Madehdou last winter worked on Ghenwein School, a project the church has been involved with since 2010. The two were in a team of 10 that helped build a sanitation facility and water pump at the school.

  • Building a future: Somerton United Methodist Church members Dennis Fisher and Jacob Madehdou last winter worked on Ghenwein School, a project the church has been involved with since 2010. The two were in a team of 10 that helped build a sanitation facility and water pump at the school.

Two mem­bers of a Somer­ton church that’s been build­ing a school in Liber­ia were in the West Afric­an coun­try earli­er this year, but they were there and back home be­fore the largest ever out­break of the deadly Ebola vir­us began this spring.

Somer­ton United Meth­od­ist Church mem­bers Den­nis Fish­er and Jac­ob Made­hdou were in rur­al cent­ral Liber­ia in Janu­ary, work­ing on a school the church has been build­ing in the vil­lage of Ghen­wein since 2010. The two were in a team of 10 that helped build a san­it­a­tion fa­cil­ity and a wa­ter pump at the school, Made­hdou said dur­ing an Aug. 6 phone in­ter­view.

No one got sick, he said. Fish­er said an­oth­er church mem­ber con­trac­ted mal­aria dur­ing a 2013 vis­it to Liber­ia, but she re­covered.

Right now, schools are closed and con­struc­tion has ceased. But, Fish­er said, schools are al­ways closed this time of year.

“They have a sched­ule just like we do,” he said dur­ing a phone in­ter­view. Be­sides, it’s the rainy sea­son now, so con­struc­tion would be at a stand­still any­way.

On Aug. 6, the same day Made­hdou and Fish­er were in­ter­viewed for this story, Liber­ia’s pres­id­ent, El­len John­son Sir­leaf, de­clared a state of emer­gency in her coun­try be­cause the Ebola out­break has showed no signs of abat­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press, Sir­leaf an­nounced some civil rights may have to be sus­pen­ded while the coun­try battles the dis­ease.

Al­most 300 people have died of Ebola in Liber­ia. 

What the out­break’s ef­fect on fur­ther work at Ghen­wein has to be de­term­ined. It’s already had an im­pact. A group of teach­ers from up­state Pennsylvania was due to ar­rive in the area in Septem­ber, Fish­er said, to con­duct teach­er train­ing, but that trip has been scrubbed be­cause of Ebola.

An Ebola out­break in West Africa is un­usu­al, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press. The dis­ease is more as­so­ci­ated with Cent­ral Africa, where it was dis­covered about four dec­ades ago in the Congo near the Ebola River. The cur­rent out­break, now his­tor­ic­ally the largest, has sickened thou­sands and has killed more than 800 since March.

Fish­er said it began in Guinea, which bor­ders Liber­ia. Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion, Ebola has spread to Liber­ia and Si­erra Le­one.

The dis­ease, which af­fects vic­tims first with fevers, head­aches, sore throats and muscle aches, is treat­able but of­ten fatal. Ebola can look like chol­era, mal­aria or typhoid. As pa­tients near death, they be­gin bleed­ing in­tern­ally — and ex­tern­ally through their noses and ears.

The vir­us, Fish­er said, has claimed more vic­tims in Liber­ia’s cap­it­al, Mon­rovia, where most of the people live. Ebola is spread by hu­man con­tact. Wa­ter jugs for people to use to wash their hands have been set up around Mon­rovia.

In rur­al Ghen­wein, about 140 miles from the cap­it­al, the dis­ease has had no real im­pact, Fish­er said.

The dis­tance does not sound great, Fish­er said, but it’s more a mat­ter of time on bad roads that make Ghen­wein and Mon­rovia far apart, a fact that might be hard for Amer­ic­ans to get their heads around. North­east Philly is a com­par­able dis­tance from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., but the roughly 150 miles eas­ily can be covered without break­ing any laws in about three hours. In Liber­ia, a coun­try that had been torn by years of civil war, the roads are get­ting bet­ter, Fish­er said, but the 140 miles from the cap­it­al to Ghen­wein takes about eight hours.

That’s bet­ter than the 14 hours it used to take, Fish­er said.   

Ghen­wein is on a main road and not cut off from the rest of the coun­try, but Ebola’s im­pact in the vil­lage is in­dir­ect, Fish­er said. With al­most all of the med­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als ded­ic­ated to fight­ing the out­break, it’s now dif­fi­cult for people to get nor­mal or emer­gency med­ic­al treat­ment.

SCHOOL’S PRO­GRESS

In 2010, mem­bers of the Somer­ton United Meth­od­ist Church began work­ing on the Ghen­wein school, and some mem­bers of the small Bustleton Av­en­ue con­greg­a­tion have been to Liber­ia’s rur­al in­teri­or to help with its con­struc­tion.

Ten classrooms are planned, Made­hdou said. So far, six have been com­pleted.

“We are now talk­ing about rais­ing funds to con­tin­ue,” he said.

The North­east Times first pub­lished a story about the church’s work in Liber­ia in 2010.

Church mem­bers saw their plan to build a school as an op­por­tun­ity to provide edu­ca­tion in the rur­al area and also as an op­por­tun­ity to cur­tail Liber­ia’s tra­di­tion­al prac­tice of fe­male cir­cum­cision, which in­volves fe­male gen­it­al mu­til­a­tion.

In a 2010 in­ter­view, Made­hdou said the school pro­ject has been a suc­cess in that re­gard. In Liber­ia coun­tryside, many girls are edu­cated in “bush schools” in which they learn cook­ing, home­mak­ing and child rear­ing. Cir­cum­cision is per­formed near the con­clu­sion of that edu­ca­tion as a cul­tur­al en­trance in­to wo­man­hood, he said.

The Somer­ton con­greg­a­tion’s hope was that, by provid­ing more form­al school­ing for girls, young wo­men could avoid the bush schools and cir­cum­cision.

When the school’s found­a­tion was laid and a roof was put on four com­pleted classrooms, Made­hdou said, “We were able to con­vince the vil­lage eld­ers we were an al­tern­at­ive and they closed their bush school.”

A little money can go a long way at the Ghen­wein Mis­sion School, church mem­bers have said. Fif­teen dol­lars can buy a school desk. Twelve dol­lars spon­sors a stu­dent for a month. Fifty dol­lars pays a teach­er’s salary.

Any­one in­ter­ested in donat­ing to the church’s mis­sion can vis­it www.liberi­ae­du­ca­tion­pro­ject.org and use PayP­al, Fish­er said. Or they can use the U.S. mail and donate to the Liber­ia Edu­ca­tion Pro­ject, care of the Somer­ton United Meth­od­ist Church, 13073 Bustleton Ave., Phil­adelphia, PA 19116. ••

WHAT IS EBOLA?

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion, Ebola vir­us dis­ease (formerly known as Ebola haem­or­rhagic fever) is a severe, of­ten fatal ill­ness, with a case fatal­ity rate of up to 90 per­cent. It is one of the world’s most vir­u­lent dis­eases. The in­fec­tion is trans­mit­ted by dir­ect con­tact with the blood, body flu­ids and tis­sues of in­fec­ted an­im­als or people. Severely ill pa­tients re­quire in­tens­ive sup­port­ive care. Dur­ing an out­break, those at high­er risk of in­fec­tion are health work­ers, fam­ily mem­bers and oth­ers in close con­tact with sick people and de­ceased pa­tients. 

The early symp­toms of an Ebola in­fec­tion in­clude fever, head­ache, muscle aches and sore throat. It can be dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish between Ebola and mal­aria, typhoid fever or chol­era. Only in later stages do people with Ebola be­gin bleed­ing both in­tern­ally and ex­tern­ally, of­ten through the nose and ears.

For more in­form­a­tion, vis­it www.who.int/csr/dis­ease/ebola/en

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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