The United Methodist Struggle Against Ebola in Sierra Leone
The daily struggle against Ebola of United Methodists in Sierra Leone reached into world headlines once again with the infection and death in mid-November of a prominent surgeon associated with Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Freetown. But the church’s fight began months ago.
The experience of Dr. Martin Salia, transferred to the United States for treatment at the Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, put the spotlight on a community of faith deeply involved in grassroots efforts to stop the spread of the dreaded disease. Dr. Salia died on the morning of November 17.
“Our prayers for God’s comfort are with the Salia family as is our thanks for Dr. Salia’s courageous medical and humanitarian service in Sierra Leone,” said Thomas Kemper, chief executive of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, which relates to Kissy Hospital. “He was a man of faith and compassion and we are blessed by his life and work.”
Dr. Salia, a Sierra Leone national whose family lives in Maryland in the United States, had worked part-time at Kissy since 2012 and full-time since January 2014, according to missionary Beatrice Gbanga, coordinator of United Methodist anti-Ebola efforts in Sierra Leone. Ms. Gbanga said that the doctor also served in other medical facilities and a teaching hospital. No other cases of Ebola have been reported at Kissy, which is not an Ebola treatment center. The source of Dr. Salia’s infection was not known as of mid-November. Four Kissy staff members who had contact with him were quarantined.
As of November 14, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported 4,683 laboratory-confirmed cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone and 1,187 deaths. Total deaths in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the three hardest hit countries, stood at more than 5,100.
Bishop Gave the Alarm
Bishop John Yambasu, leader of the Sierra Leone Annual (regional) Conference of the UMC, was one of the first prominent figures to ring the alarm bell last summer as Ebola spread from rural Guinea into adjoining Sierra Leone. He saw it migrating into urban areas and was instrumental in organizing Christian and Muslim leaders to collaborate in the public education and international advocacy needed to quell the outbreak. “We’ve got a real problem developing here,” he notified the United Methodist Council of Bishops and the Global Health unit of the church’s General Board of Global Ministries.
The conference health board went into action, assisted by Global Ministries and its United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The church efforts initially and now focus on prevention through training for medical staff members, public education for prevention, provision of medical and sanitary supplies, and training for the care of those who survive Ebola. Training is also offered on how to safely and respectfully bury those who die of Ebola.
As of November 17, UMCOR had provided $401,000 for anti-Ebola work in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the annual conference health board is also deeply involved in efforts to control the disease.
Emphasis on Prevention
The United Methodist conference health boards in Africa were uniquely equipped to provide public education on disease prevention, having honed their capacity through a sustained effort against malaria in recent years. The denomination’s Imagine No Malaria initiative has distributed millions of insecticide- treated mosquito nets along with instructions on how to use them. Additional training covers treatment of the disease and ways to prevent mosquitos from breeding.
“We take very seriously the values of community-based primary health care,” said Thomas Kemper, general secretary of the Global Ministries agency and acting director of its Global Health unit. “It is always better to prevent a disease than to face the need to cure it.”
United Methodists comprise a community of some 232,500 persons in Sierra Leone, organized into 334 pastoral charges served by some 340 ordained and lay pastors. It is a product of American missionary work through the United Brethren in Christ Church during the second half of the 19th century. The Brethren tradition became part of The United Methodist Church in 1968.
The Sierra Leone Annual Conference maintains 300 elementary and secondary schools, and before the Ebola outbreak, had a network of hospitals and several rural clinics. Most of the latter have closed because they are not equipped to handle Ebola patients.
Mercy Hospital in the city of Bo was earlier closed for three weeks after three staff members were diagnosed with Ebola and one of those persons died, according to information from the Global Ministries Health unit. Another staff member, whose exposure was traced to a non-hospital source, died from the disease. Mercy was set to reopen on November 17.
Kissy, near Freetown, employed Dr. Salia and was closed on November 11 after the doctor tested positive for Ebola. The 70-bed facility was quarantined for at least 21 days.
Kissy and Mercy Hospitals are part of the Global Ministries Global Health Hospital Systems Strengthening, a program designed to strengthen the physical infrastructure, human resources, operational capacity and sustainability of United Methodist health facilities and programs around the world. Kissy was founded as a clinic in 1974 through the efforts of Swedish United Methodists.
The Great Plains Annual Conference, which includes Omaha, Nebraska, where Dr. Salia was treated, set up a special fund to defray transportation and treatment costs not covered by other sources. The conference and its leader, Bishop Scott J. Jones, extended both welcome and pastoral services to the doctor’s wife, Isatu Salia, who traveled to Omaha to be near her husband.
To learn more about Global Ministries’ response to the Ebola emergency and what you can do to help, click here.