A few days ago, Google announced that it will donate $2 for every $1 people donate to nonprofits such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children in the fight against Ebola. As well-intentioned as this campaign might be, short-lived charity donations are not what is necessary to successfully eradicate the Ebola virus.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Enugu, Nigeria, the expectation was that I would become a doctor. As little as six-years-old, at family gatherings, weddings and other celebrations, the adults would interrogate the children: "What do you want to do when you grow up?" We quickly learned that there was one answer that got the highest approval. And it was: medical doctor.
The recent Ebola crisis with its footprint in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone highlights the great value of well-trained medical professionals equipped with the knowledge and resources to combat communicable disease. Philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates should be commended for their generosity in donating to the Centers for Disease and Control in the United States and to other U.N. organizations charged with organizing volunteer efforts. Indeed, the tireless efforts of such organizations as Médecins Sans Frontières and the courageous doctors who volunteer for them and other such organizations cannot be discounted in the progress made to curb the spread of Ebola. However, it is a grave oversight that little attention is paid to enabling the education of West African doctors and nurses. West Africa does not only need volunteer doctors to fight the Ebola epidemic; rather it also needs the infrastructure and funding to train its own citizens to provide continuous care.
My maternal grandfather was a well-spoken stately man who was fastidious about cleanliness. Most Saturday mornings he was up early to organize the neighborhood cleanup of roadways and main sewers; a job that is typically handled by the sanitation departments of more developed countries. My grandfather was the first in his family to achieve higher education and he had trained as a nurse. He had agitated for the unionization of nurses to attain better working conditions and better pay. And, he had left his wife and children behind for more than a year to train to be a hospital administrator in England. This additional training came in handy during the Nigerian-Biafran war, when most medical personnel in Nigeria, who were British or other European nationals were expatriated, and the newly seceded Biafra, where my grandfather resided, was cut off from the rest of the world.
During the war, my grandfather single-handedly ran a small clinic to attend to the medical needs of people in his ancestral village. And after the war, when many of the foreign national doctors and nurses still had not returned, my father also ran the hospital in his village. My grandfather retired from nursing a few years after I was born, but I remember seeing people in our community still come to him for medical advice and help. Most could not afford to pay a doctor, some were distrustful of western medicine and others were afraid to go to the hospital where the death rate was high. They came to my grandfather because he offered free help and because he spoke their language.
Nigeria was recently declared to be free of new Ebola cases. And this good fortune is thanks in large part to the smart judgment and quick action of a Nigerian doctor. Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh took the right actions when she encountered Nigeria's Ebola Patient Zero, Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American businessman who had managed to slip through security barriers. Dr. Adadevoh correctly diagnosed the disease and also put in place the appropriate quarantine measures, remaining steadfast even as Liberian officials put pressure on her to discharge the patient and allow him to attend the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) conference. In the end, both Patrick Sawyer and Dr. Adadevoh succumbed to the disease, but Dr. Adadevoh's training and quick thinking averted the deaths of many more people. We should not, however, ignore the lack of infrastructure that resulted in Dr. Adadevoh's death -- at the time the Ebola virus arrived in Nigeria, the doctors at all federal government hospitals were on strike due to poor pay and bad work conditions. Also, the hospitals in Nigeria lacked isolation wards and the proper hazardous materials suits needed to contain a viral outbreak.
It is no accident that Liberia, the country hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic, long suffered from a lack of doctors. It had about 50 doctors before the epidemic and as of October 2014, at least four had died from Ebola. Estimates are that Liberia needs roughly 9,000 to 10,000 health workers to staff the thousands of beds that USAIDS is building.
Volunteer doctors alone cannot be relied on to fill the void. Some U.S. hospitals are reluctant to let their staff volunteer in Ebola-stricken areas, and many other countries have either already imposed or are calling for travel bans to Ebola-affected regions, thus stymieing the transportation of volunteers.
As much as we should applaud the selfless efforts of medical professionals who risk their lives to volunteer, we must also recognize that this is merely a stopgap. The lasting solution is to train and equip West African medical professionals who will provide continuous care and practice preventative medicine. This is the only true way to forever eradicate the Ebola virus. Philanthropists like Bill Gates and others should mobilize their wealth to build the medical infrastructure needed and to train medical professionals who will work in West Africa long after the volunteers have returned home. This Ebola crisis was not the first one, but it can be the last, if long-term solutions are embraced.