Toledo group joins battle against Ebola

Dr. Thomas Asher, right, and Dr. Karen Asher, shown in Sierra Leone during an earlier trip, are co-founders of the Toledo-based West African Education and Medical Mission.
Dr. Thomas Asher, right, and Dr. Karen Asher, shown in Sierra Leone during an earlier trip, are co-founders of the Toledo-based West African Education and Medical Mission.

PITTSBURGH — As the deadly Ebola virus sweeps through three West African nations, the Toledo-based West African Education and Medical Mission and Pittsburgh’‍s Brother’‍s Brother Foundation are aiding the region with continued shipments of medical supplies.

The first symptoms of the virus appeared three months ago in Guinea. When Ebola was diagnosed, local governments did not view it as significant.

But now, with about 400 deaths, hospitals in two other affected countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone, are overwhelmed by hundreds of infected, highly contagious patients.

To contain the epidemic, the World Health Organization continues to call for multilateral “drastic action.”

The Toledo and Pittsburgh groups are working together to send supplies this week more directly geared to the outbreak.

The Ebola virus was last in the headlines in 2007, when it killed 187 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Transmitted to humans by exposure to infected animals, Ebola manifests in a sudden and intense fever and is believed to be spread by bodily fluids, including sweat. That necessitates protective equipment, which U.S. groups help provide.

Brother’‍s Brother, a global relief organization founded 56 years ago, has supported 200 African hospitals to date.

When President Luke Hingson visited Sierra Leone in February, he met Toledo doctors Karen and Tom Asher.

They are medical advisers to the Christian Health Association of Sierra Leone. To date, it has aided and staffed 12 hospitals and 40 clinics. Co-founders of the West African Education and Medical Mission, the Ashers have lived in Africa nine months of the year since 2008.

At a WHO conference this week in Ghana, health authorities from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and neighboring nations will work on a unified strategy for controlling the epidemic.

Senior officials in affected nations are requesting the help of the developed world.

“This is very urgent. There is no time to lose,” said Ibrahim Conteh, deputy chief of mission for the Embassy of Sierra Leone in Washington. “People are dying.”

WHO estimates that symptoms appear from two to 21 days after contraction, after which Ebola has a case fatality rate of up to 90 percent. Since the first case in 1976, the disease has killed more than 3,000 people.

Although contained to Africa at this point, Ebola is highly contagious, and health authorities have warned that one infected airline passenger could transmit the disease beyond the continent.

There is no known cure or vaccine.

According to the Ashers’‍ colleagues working on the ground, the Sierra Leone government is working with nongovernmental organizations to gather supplies and staff for the most endangered areas.

Roadblocks serve as fever checkpoints, and national radio and flyers attempt to educate about symptoms and prevention.

But in a country with one Ebola testing site, 100 doctors to treat its 6 million people, and an average family daily income of $1.16, communication is limited.

Two major health-care concerns dominate international conversation around the epidemic — and inform the way that the Pittsburgh and Toledo organizations are responding. First, the safety of doctors and hospital staff is of high priority.

“These people are putting their lives on the line to go to work,” said Dr. Karen Asher.

Health advocates also worry about the tendency of West African hospitals to over-ration in an effort not to run out of supplies.

“One of the things we think is most effective is assuring them, ‘‍Go ahead and use it. There are more coming,’‍” Dr. Karen Asher said.

“There are shortages that the Western world can’‍t even imagine,” she said, to explain the over-rationing. “I remember walking around an OB ward, looking down and seeing maggots in a reused catheter.”

Mr. Hingson recalls a similar scene in the Connaught Hospital of Freetown, Sierra Leone. “In the pediatric orthopedic ward, mom was the IV pole,” he said.

The Toledo and Pittsburgh groups accept contributions of operating tables, IV poles, fluids, mattresses, exam gloves, gowns, masks, soap, and protective gear. Once packed into a shipment, the supplies spend three months at sea.

“We’‍re in this for the long haul. We send shipments all year because the need is there all year,” Dr. Karen Asher said.

Although the coalition’‍s immediate assembly of supplies won’t reach West Africa until the end of the summer, the knowledge of their existence is designed to empower affected hospitals — especially in Sierra Leone — to protect their doctors and use what they have to treat the Ebola outbreak.

The Ashers will return to the region this year, despite the epidemic’‍s risks. They will join more than 150 teams of doctors that WHO has dispatched to assist in the disaster response.

“How can we not? I can count on one hand the number of American children that died in my decades here as family doctor,” said Dr. Karen Asher.

“One out of every five kids will die in that country.”

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Emma S. Brown is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette. Contact Emma S. Brown at: or 412-263-3778.