My father was born in Sierra Leone and my parents married there, so I've always felt a connection to that country, but never as strongly as in recent weeks as the Ebola virus has stormed through Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, ravaging communities and taking innocent lives.
A few weeks ago, as Ebola slipped down the world's list of priorities, I woke up in the middle of the night knowing I had to do something, in whatever way I could, to help fight the spread of this virus. Unchecked, Ebola threatens to not only take more lives, but to destroy the fragile economic growth that West Africa, especially Sierra Leone, has experienced post-war. So I've spent the last two weeks meeting with NGO groups working to help those affected and with the United Nations officials who are coordinating the response, learning about what is needed and what I can do to help.
It is clear from the meetings I've had that Ebola isn't just a crisis, it is a human catastrophe and one that threatens to grow stronger and spread wider if the world doesn't act now.
At the UN last week, I was honored to meet with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Dr. Samura Kamara, Foreign Minister of Sierra Leone. During the UN High Level Meeting on Ebola, I listened to President Obama and other leaders urge the world to act. The danger of the situation couldn't have been clearer. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is talking about a "potential meltdown" if the world doesn't do a lot more and quickly.
I was genuinely heartened as country after country offered their solidarity and support, and I'm pleased that tomorrow in the UK the development minister Justine Greening is hosting a global conference to raise additional funds and equipment to contain the outbreak in Sierra Leone. But these pledges are just the start of the process. We need to make sure that the leaders' words translate into action on the ground. Proper health services and professional care can dramatically improve chances of survival from this disease, which makes quick delivery of vital materials and personnel even more essential. Until there are more health care workers to fight the disease and more tools for them to fight it with, Ebola will continue to kill large numbers of people.
The most humbling moments for me this week were hearing about the bravery of the health care workers risking their own lives to fight the virus on the front lines. Imagine having to sit down to tell your family, your parents, your wife, your child that you're going to fight Ebola. That's bravery. These workers are heroes and we owe it to them to make sure they have all the equipment they need to help them to stop the spread of the virus. We also need to redouble our efforts to develop an effective vaccine. I know that there is some progress on this front, but it cannot come fast enough.
In the face of so many world problems, crises like the Ebola outbreak can seem hopeless, or far away, but this is a disease that can be stopped. If, like me, you want to do something to help, here are three areas in which we can all have an impact:
- Ensure the politicians deliver on their promises to contain Ebola: with new government commitments last week the media's attention was on Ebola, but the cameras will soon move on. We can't let them. Not until this disease is contained. Delivery on the ground needs to happen quickly and we need every country to play their part. The ONE Campaign has launched a petition to world leaders demanding greater action against Ebola and they've gathered 125,000 signatures in just over a week. We've set a new goal of 200,000 to show that we are not going to let up until the doctors and nurses on the ground have what they need. Please join us by signing here.
- Support the health care workers on the ground, and those organizations helping them: Ebola is not just killing people directly; it has also led to a spike in other dangerous diseases like typhoid and malaria as people stop going to hospitals, afraid they will catch Ebola. Health care workers have been attacked by people who fear they are spreading, not treating the virus. We must support education campaigns in the affected countries and strengthen the effectiveness of -- and trust in -- their health care systems. In the meantime, we need to get those on the frontlines the supplies they need to fight the disease. Please support the charities who I met with and heard from this week who are supporting the heroic health care workers on the ground: the International Rescue Committee, Médicins Sans Frontières and Save the Children.
- Support the countries who are dealing with the virus for the longer term: We must stand with Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea not only as they fight Ebola now, but also in the longer term, as they build back their economies and strengthen their healthcare systems -- so that the next time an outbreak like Ebola happens, they have the skills and equipment to contain it before it rages out of control.
For me the fight against Ebola is a very personal one, but I know millions of people all over the world have been moved to want to help. We cannot leave the people of Sierra Leone and West Africa to suffer alone. We owe it to them as fellow human beings to ensure our leaders deliver on their promises, support the healthcare workers, and stop this virus in its tracks.
This post is part of a special series produced by The Huffington Post in recognition of the threats posed by Ebola, particularly to West Africa. To see all the posts in the series, read here.