AJWS expands focus on Ebola prevention, education


When the magnitude of the Ebola crisis became clear in August, Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and her team contacted the 10 Liberian organizations AJWS supports to ask whether the agencies would like to change course from other social service activities to focus on the evolving emergency.

“We could alter your grant and increase the resources you have if you would like to become a part of a brigade of community health workers,” Messinger recalled offering the groups; she spoke on Nov. 18 with Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, before a small audience at the home of AJWS board member Bill Resnick and his husband, Michael Stubbs.

All 10 organizations agreed, and in August AJWS launched a special emergency response fund with the goal of raising $1 million, of which more than $850,000 has already been collected. AJWS’ aim is to combat a climate of fear and misinformation by disseminating accurate information to communities across Liberia, where AJWS has collaborated with and funded grass-roots organizations since 2003.

Prior to the Ebola crisis, AJWS primarily directed its grants toward organizations assisting marginalized communities — first the efforts of activist Leymah Gbowee, whose work with women helped end a civil war in 2003 and eventually earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, and later a range of organizations working to end discrimination against women and to provide underprivileged populations access to natural resources.

However, the fast-moving devastation of the Ebola epidemic necessitated an immediate shift in focus, Messinger said. Organizations such as Mano River Women’s Peace Network, Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Foundation for Community Initiatives and Bassa Women Development Association have changed course to assist in the national effort.

Where AJWS normally focuses primarily on defending the rights of women, LGBT people and other marginalized groups, it is now working with its partner organizations to spread information about Ebola prevention and treatment , with people reaching out house to house or broadcasting over  the radio and by targeting community leaders, including local ministers and imams. To increase the availability of accurate information, workers from these organizations are also training other Liberians to be community health advocates.

The Ebola crisis “is much more than a health problem or a public health problem,” Messenger said. “It is a system-wide challenge to a barely shaped and formed government.”

By example, Messenger quoted a recent exchange with AJWS’ only Liberian staff person, Dayugar Johnson: “Our kids are out of school without knowing when they will return. There is a partial closure for a lot of things: Most clinics and hospitals are still closed, schools at every level are closed, some business are closed, etc.

“The Ebola outbreak has placed a lot of strain on me and my family,” Johnson added. “We have had to change our way of life and daily routine to the point that our neighbors who were not taking the outbreak seriously felt somehow offended when I asked their children and them to stay at their house and stopped the children from playing together.”

Since the outbreak began, this sort of skepticism about the existence of Ebola, its source and its treatment has made it difficult for health groups to implement a consistent and deliberate response.

Imagine if you were part of a group in your congregation charged with washing the bodies of the deceased, Messinger pressed, “and all of a sudden there are basically, and sometimes actually, masked personnel from a government you don’t trust or from the West telling you that these practices must stop immediately.

“It is a constant challenge for all of us to really put ourselves in the minds of other people and think about how they see this,” Messinger continued. “You would have to have a big level of trust and analytic understanding to believe that you should, in fact, suspend everything you do.”

For that reason, Messinger said, she finds it difficult to believe in the accuracy of the tallies of confirmed Ebola cases and of the deceased. Some Liberians, she said, are probably continuing to practice their traditional burial customs despite being urged otherwise.

Nevertheless, Messinger cautioned against the hysteria American politicians and the media here have helped create. “Everything you read about this crisis needs to be taken as both a piece of the truth and not at all the whole truth,” Messinger warned.

“The scariest thing about this, both internationally and locally, is that day by day, every second story about Ebola is exactly the same as a story about HIV or AIDS in the 1980s,” she said, referring to the widespread dissemination of false information and pseudoscience.

“Everyone who asks you about Ebola spreading in this country, there is just a very simple thing to ask them: Have you gotten your flu shot? You can go to any drugstore in Los Angeles and get your flu shot today, and you should do that, because many, many, many more people in this country will die of the flu than will ever see Ebola,” Messinger said.

At closing, Rabbi Brous emphasized that there is a silver lining to the United States’ renewed focus on African health and politics. “There is a humanizing element here that is very powerful,” Brous said, “and we who care about global human rights issues and humanity outside of our daled amot — as we say, our immediate circles — should actually be taking advantage of the heightened sensitivity right now, and instead of using it to be fearful about the spread of Ebola locally, [use it] to awaken people to a sense of responsibility globally.” Messinger and AJWS know this to be true. 

For Jews fighting Ebola, specialty is psychosocial therapy


Even amid the unceasing horrors of Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, it was a case that stood out.

A 5-year-old boy had been found in his home in a remote village, the lone survivor in a house riddled with the corpses of family members. He needed to be extracted; the bodies needed to be buried.

The operator who took the call at the Freetown hotline that coordinates the dispatch of ambulances, police and burial teams was shaken.

Enter IsraAid. The lone Israeli or Jewish disaster relief organization on the ground in the Ebola zone, IsraAid is providing psychosocial counseling and training to service providers – health workers, social workers, teachers, police — dealing with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. The locals staffing Freetown’s Ebola hotline are among those receiving counseling.

“Dealing with the psychosocial trauma is critical to addressing the Ebola outbreak,” Shachar Zahavi, IsraAid’s founding director, told JTA in an interview. “A major deterrent to treatment is that people don’t trust one another. If you don’t feel well, your family immediately hides you and you then infect your entire family. We’re trying to teach police, social workers, health workers and teachers how to deal with people who are afraid of them – and how to manage their own stress and anxiety.”

Last month, IsraAid’s work earned the organization a letter of praise and thanks from Sierra Leone’s first lady, Sia Nyama Koroma. She also happens to be a psychiatric nurse, and when IsraAid held a two-day psychosocial counseling workshop last week in Freetown, Koroma cleared her schedule to attend the entire program, according to Zahavi.

A 13-year-old organization funded in part by U.S. Jewish institutions and federations, and supported by the Israeli government, IsraAid honed its techniques in other disasters, such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines. But IsraAid staffers say Ebola is their most challenging crisis.

“It’s more difficult than other disasters, mostly because it’s an ongoing disaster and it’s scary,” said Yotam Polizer, IsraAid’s regional director for Asia and now the person in charge of the Africa response. Polizer spent most of October in Sierra Leone and will head back there next week from his home base in Japan.

IsraAid has brought four Israelis to Sierra Leone: two psychosocial trauma specialists and two logistics experts. Next week another six will arrive, and Polizer is working on hiring a team of locals.

It’s hard to recruit Israelis to join the effort, organizational officials say, because they must be fit enough to work in grueling conditions required by Ebola protocols and be able to clear their schedule for at least six weeks: one week for training, three to four weeks in the field, and two to three weeks afterward to make sure they’re not infected.

And then there’s the fear factor.

“At least two to three times a day people start to freak out, worrying they have a fever, and they have to be calmed down,” Polizer said. “It’s very challenging.”

When he returns to Sierra Leone next week, Polizer said he’ll have to reacquaint himself with the demanding strictures of life in the Ebola zone, including taking his temperature every few hours; washing his hands with chlorine 20-30 times a day; refraining from any physical contact, even handshakes, with other people; and eating only at three or four carefully vetted restaurants. Most difficult of all will be trying to make sure not to touch his own eyes. Relief workers say eyes are the most easily infected part of the body.

IsraAid is the only official Israeli presence in the Ebola zone. But while Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declined a U.S. request to send Israeli military staff to Africa, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is sending equipment for three mobile medical clinics in the affected region. IsraAid has been tasked with receiving the two shipments going to Sierra Leone and Liberia, and helping integrate the clinics into existing international aid efforts run by such groups as International Medical Corps, Doctors Without Borders, and the U.S. and U.K. armies.

In the United States, the New York-based American Jewish World Service has been leading the Jewish effort to send financial help to the hot zone, funding 10 groups in Liberia and one in Senegal that are working to contain the Ebola outbreak.

These groups’ efforts include using radio stations and rural media organizations to carry out public education campaigns combating Ebola’s spread; training and equipping volunteers to deliver hygiene materials and information pamphlets to local households; providing psychosocial support and counseling to Ebola survivors and their families; renovating a clinic to act as an Ebola quarantine and triage center; and in one case, providing primary medical care services to locals in light of the collapse of local health care systems.

“When the outbreak grew in intensity this summer, we consulted our existing grantees in Liberia to find out which resources they needed to respond to the epidemic in their communities,” said Ruth Messinger, the president of American Jewish World Service. “These local activist groups were well positioned to take this work on because they were already well-established and trusted members of their communities.”

AJWS has disbursed about $405,000 to its recipient organizations and raised about $820,000 from donors. Most of that sum has come in over the last six weeks, since AJWS increased its fundraising goal to $1 million from $200,000.

Despite all the challenges of working with Ebola, Polizer said there have been moments of satisfaction. In IsraAid’s stress management workshops for relief workers and Ebola survivors, leaders employ a variety of tactics. Role play exercises are designed to help Ebola survivors cope with people who stigmatize or reject them because they’ve had the disease. Health workers practice movement and dance therapy to help cheer them up, and breathing exercises to help them relax.

The head nurse of one hospital outside Freetown came to one of IsraAid’s stress management sessions burnt out and afraid after having lost more than 35 colleagues to Ebola, Polizer recalled. Instructors helped the nurse with a relaxation technique in which participants close their eyes and imagine themselves in a safe place.

The nurse fell asleep, and when she awoke she was smiling. It was the first time since the outbreak began, Polizer said she told him, that she had enjoyed a proper sleep.

(This story has been updated to reflect the updated total sum distributed by AJWS,)

All smiles, nurse infected by first U.S. Ebola patient is released


The second of two American nurses who became infected with Ebola while treating a Liberian man who died of the disease in Texas was released from an Atlanta hospital on Tuesday having been declared free of the virus.

“I'm so grateful to be well,” a smiling Amber Vinson, 29, told reporters at Emory University Hospital before hugging the doctors and nurses who treated her since her Oct. 15 arrival.

“While this is a day for celebration and gratitude, I ask that we not lose focus on the thousands of families who continue to labor under the burden of this disease in West Africa,” added Vinson, looking fit in a gray suit and pink blouse.

The infections of the nurses in a Dallas hospital at the beginning of October illustrated the initial lack of preparedness in the United States public health system to safely deal with Ebola, which has killed about 5,000 people in three impoverished West African countries and raised fears of a wider outbreak.

The other nurse who worked at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Nina Pham, 26, was declared virus-free last Friday, left the Maryland hospital where she had been treated and met with President Barack Obama.

Vinson's case caused wider alarm when it was revealed that she had flown from Texas to Ohio and back on commercial planes. Ohio state health officials are still monitoring 163 people in case they show symptoms of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever that can only be transmitted through the bodily fluids of an infected person and is not airborne.

Emory hospital declared Vinson virus-free last Friday but she spent four more days in the facility before being discharged.

“After a rigorous course of treatment and thorough testing, we have determined that Miss Vinson has recovered from her infection with Ebola virus and that she can return to her family, to the community and to her life without any concerns about transmitting this virus to any other individuals,” Emory University Hospital's Dr. Bruce Ribner told reporters.

Ribner added, “We all recognize that there is a lot of anxiety, and that is understandable. But the American healthcare system has been successfully able to treat patients with the Ebola virus.”

Vinson is the fourth patient successfully treated for Ebola at Emory's hospital. Vinson and Pham treated Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who had traveled to Texas in late September. He was the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States and he died on Oct. 8.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama will make a statement to reporters later on Tuesday after he phones a team working in West Africa for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The White House is under pressure to explain why U.S. military personnel returning from West Africa are facing 21-day quarantines while the protocols for civilian medical personnel returning from the region will vary, depending on their risk. The returning troops are being placed in isolation at a base in Italy.

Earnest told reporters it will be more efficient to monitor the health of thousands of military personnel returning from the region if they are quarantined.

The lone patient now being treated for Ebola in the United States is a New York doctor, Craig Spencer, who was diagnosed last Thursday. He had worked with Doctors Without Borders treating Ebola patients in Guinea. Also in New York, health officials said a 5-year-old boy from Guinea who tested negative for Ebola turned out to have a fever because of a respiratory infection.

STATE RESTRICTIONS

States including New York and New Jersey have imposed their own safeguards including mandatory quarantines for doctors and nurses returning from the three countries at the center of the epidemic, saying federal policies do not adequately protect the public. Some lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have criticized the response by Obama's administration as inept.

Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in an interview on NBC's “Today” show, defended his state's Ebola policy on Tuesday, saying it is not “draconian.”

“We're trying to be careful here. This is common sense,” Christie said. “Our policy hasn't changed and our policy will not change.”

Weighing in on the debate, Emory's Ribner said states must do “a very delicate balancing act” as they decide whether to quarantine returning U.S. doctors and nurses who have been fighting Ebola in the West Africa hot zone but “we must not let fear get in the way.”

Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins, Doina Chiacu, Chris Helgren and Roberta Rampton; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool

Ebola cases in the United States


Nine cases of Ebola have been seen in the United States since the beginning of August. A Liberian man who died Oct. 8 in a Dallas, Texas, hospital was the first person diagnosed with the virus on U.S. soil.

The latest case is a doctor in New York City who was diagnosed on Oct. 23 within a week of returning from treating people in Guinea, one of the three worst-hit West African countries.

The following are details of cases of the hemorrhagic fever seen in the United States:

NEW YORK DOCTOR

Dr. Craig Spencer, 33, returned to the United States on Oct. 17 via Belgium after working for Doctors Without Borders charity in Guinea. He tested positive for Ebola on Oct. 23. His fiancée and two friends are under quarantine until Nov. 14.

NURSES

Nina Pham, 26, a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where she helped treat Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan. She was diagnosed four days after Duncan died. On Oct. 24 officials declared Pham free of the virus and she is released from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where she had been treated since Oct. 16.

A second nurse at the same hospital who treated Duncan, 29-year-old Amber Vinson, also tested positive for the virus. On Oct. 24 the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta where she was being treated declared her free of the virus. She was released from the hospital Oct. 28.

Vinson flew from Ohio to Dallas the day before reporting symptoms, raising concerns about possible spread of the disease, which someone can get through contact with bodily fluids. Ohio has not reported any case of Ebola.

NBC CAMERAMAN

Ashoka Mukpo, an American freelance television cameraman working for NBC News in Liberia, was flown out of the country for treatment at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Mukpo, 33, was declared free of the virus on Oct. 21 and left the hospital the next day. “Recovering from Ebola is a truly humbling feeling. Too many are not as fortunate and lucky as I've been. I'm very happy to be alive,” he said in a Twitter post this week.

The NBC crew who worked with Mukpo also returned to the United States and were ordered into quarantine after violating their voluntary confinement.

LIBERIAN IN DALLAS

Duncan was visiting Dallas when he began feeling ill and sought treatment at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on Sept. 25. He was initially discharged with antibiotics, despite telling a nurse he had just come from Liberia. On Sept. 28 he returned to the same hospital by ambulance after vomiting outside the apartment complex where he was staying. Duncan died in an isolation ward 11 days later.

EMORY PATIENT

An unidentified American who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone began treatment at Emory University Hospital on Sept. 9. The patient, who has asked to remain anonymous, was discharged on Oct. 19, the university said.

THREE MISSIONARIES

Three Americans contracted Ebola while working for Christian missionary organizations in Liberia and were flown to the United States for treatment. All have recovered.

Nancy Writebol contracted the virus in July while working for a SIM USA hospital with her husband, David, who was not infected. She was treated at Emory and discharged on Aug. 19.

Dr. Kent Brantly also was treated in isolation at Emory after contracting Ebola while working for Christian relief group Samaritan's Purse. He was released on Aug. 21.

Dr. Rick Sacra, a Boston physician who was working for SIM USA, arrived in the United States on Sept. 5 and was treated for three weeks at Nebraska Medical Center. 

Compiled by Susan Heavey and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker

Ebola fears should not blind us to compassion … or common sense


Along with Ebola in Africa, there’s been an outbreak of hysteria in Washington.

“The White House should immediately ban travel from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to contain the spread of Ebola,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said last week. “It’s time for Washington to take action to protect the American people.”

Supporting such a ban, Sen. Rand Paul (R- Ky.) said, “I think because of political correctness we’re not really making sound, rational, scientific decisions on this.”

In fact, it is the ability to make sound, rational and scientific decisions that has flown out the window — along with a sense of compassion.

The Jewish community should speak out forcefully against these calls. They are deeply flawed from a logical point of view, from a public policy point of view and from a moral point of view. The truth is that trying to seal U.S. borders, revoke visas, and ban flights to and from African nations will not protect the American people. In fact, such actions will endanger us further.

The vast and overwhelming majority of America’s leading public health professionals clearly that these isolationist measures would create a range of detrimental unintended consequences, sending the crisis into yet a deeper spiral. A flight ban on West African countries would not stop most people from coming to the United States. It would simply encourage travelers to use more circuitous routes and change planes in other countries, while hiding any contact that they have had with the disease. The challenging work of tracing the spread of Ebola — and preventing outbreaks in the U.S. — would become even more difficult for America’s public health professionals.

Further, a travel ban would make it nearly impossible for U.S. nongovernmental organizations to send aid workers into the stricken regions that are in grave need of assistance to treat the infected and to contain the spread of the disease. Broken health-care systems and a dire shortage of healthcare workers are a major driver of the rapid spread of Ebola. The disease has now claimed more than 4,500 lives; by many estimates, the number of infected people could d present conditions continue. The last thing we want to do is to withdraw from this global crisis.

The best way to safeguard our country — and our values, as Americans and Jews — is to act. As the president of Jewish World Watch (JWW) — an organization dedicated to fighting genocide and mass atrocities, with a major focus on conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — I often encounter people who say that we should let Africa solve its own problems. This notion is anything but Jewish. Indeed, it is fundamental in the Torah, and we have been taught through the ages, that Jews have a moral duty not only to protect our own but also to repair and steward the world. Through JWW’s work in Africa, I have witnessed directly how engagement and partnership in the world’s most violent, isolated and downtrodden areas, such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, can produce miraculous results — results that lift people out of the depths of despair and save thousands of lives.

Conversely, I have also witnessed how Western complacency and inaction allows small challenges to grow into great catastrophes. From Rwanda to Sudan to Congo, many millions have perished in African “conflicts” that could have been contained if the international community acted earlier and more effectively.

In some ways, this Ebola outbreak is a product of that tragic history. Two of the three countries now devastated by Ebola have been ravaged by war over the past two decades. These recent conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone have claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people — and inflicted a major toll on these countries’ ability to build health infrastructure and respond to emergencies.

In Liberia, the health-care system is now teetering on the brink of collapse, with hospitals closing and medical staff fleeing the country. This has left much of the population without access to basic health-care services. As a result, death rates are skyrocketing among patients who do not have Ebola — from pregnant women to people with HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

There is great fear that political instability will follow in the wake of the chaos created by Ebola if and when it spreads across the African continent. As the crisis escalates, I can’t help but think of how it would devastate the many vulnerable communities that I have come to know in Congo, where some progress has been made in working toward peace after decades of war that has claimed the lives of 6 million people. In many communities that JWW supports, the nearest medical care is at least a 10-hour walk away.

Putting our heads in the sand and effectively withdrawing our doctors and humanitarian aid workers would leave many millions even more vulnerable and enable Ebola to continue spreading across Africa, around the world and into the United States. Instead of pulling back, we need a massive investment of resources and an influx of experts into the region to contain the disease before the crisis becomes even more catastrophic. Fighting Ebola will be expensive. But it will be much less destabilizing and much less costly — both in lives and in resources — the sooner the U.S. intervenes on the ground in Africa with all of our might.

The fear that drives so many to isolationism is human. Yet, our planet is too small — our world is too interconnected — to build a wall that shields us from Ebola. As Americans, as Jews, as human beings, now is the time to breathe life into our values — before it is too late. 

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch, an organization committed to combatting genocide and mass atrocities through education, advocacy and direct aid to survivors.

Israel quarantines Nigerian tourist feared infected with Ebola


A Nigerian visiting Israel was quarantined in Jerusalem for fear she may have contracted the Ebola virus.

The patient, a tourist who works as a nurse in Nigeria and arrived in Israel several days ago, was admitted to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem with fever, Israel Radio reported on Friday. The hospital put the woman in quarantine as part of its protocol for treating patients feared to be infected with Ebola.

But a spokesperson for the Israeli Health Ministry said that “the probability that the woman has contracted Ebola is low.”

On Thursday, the World Health Organization said that more than 1,900 people have died in West Africa’s Ebola outbreak. There have been 3,500 confirmed or probable cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

More than 40 percent of the deaths have occurred in the last three weeks, the W.H.O. said, suggesting that the epidemic is fast outpacing efforts to control it, according to the BBC.

On Wednesday, the first British person to contract Ebola during the outbreak was discharged from a hospital after making a full recovery.

Symptoms of the virus, which spreads through bodily fluids, include high fever, bleeding and central nervous system damage. Fatality rate can reach 90 percent, though the current outbreak has mortality rate of about 55 percent.

West Africa Ebola outbreak could infect 20,000 people, WHO says


The Ebola epidemic in West Africa could infect over 20,000 people and spread to more countries, the U.N. health agency said on Thursday, warning that an international effort costing almost half a billion dollars is needed to overcome the outbreak.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a $490 million strategic plan to contain the epidemic over the next nine months, saying it was based on a projection that the virus could spread to 10 further countries beyond the four now affected – Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

With the IMF warning of economic damage from the outbreak, Nigeria reported that a doctor indirectly linked to the Liberian-American who brought the disease to the country had died of Ebola in Port Harcourt, Africa's largest energy hub.

In Britain, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said an experimental Ebola vaccine is being fast-tracked into human studies and it plans to produce up to 10,000 doses for emergency deployment if the results are good.

So far 3,069 cases have been reported in the outbreak but the WHO said the actual number could already be two to four times higher. “This is not a West African issue or an African issue. This is a global health security issue,” WHO's Assistant Director-General Dr Bruce Aylward told reporters in Geneva.

With a fatality rate of 52 percent, the death toll stood at 1,552 as of Aug. 26. That is nearly as high as the total from all recorded outbreaks since Ebola was discovered in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.

The figures do not include 13 deaths from a separate Ebola outbreak announced at the weekend in Congo, which has been identified as a different strain of the virus.

Aylward said tackling the epidemic would need thousands of local staff and 750 international experts. “It is a big operation. We are talking (about) well over 12,000 people operating over multiple geographies and high-risk circumstances. It is an expensive operation,” he said.

The operation marks a major raising of the response by the WHO, which had been accused by some aid agencies of reacting too slowly to the outbreak.

Medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) welcomed the WHO plan but said the important thing was now to act upon it.

“Huge questions remain about who will implement the elements in the plan,” said MSF operations director Brice de le Vingne. “None of the organizations in the most-affected countries … currently have the right set-up to respond on the scale necessary to make a serious impact.”

EXPERIMENTAL DRUGS

Early this month, the WHO classified the Ebola outbreak as an international health emergency. Concerns that the disease could spread beyond West Africa have led to the use of drugs still under development for the treatment of a handful of cases.

Two American health workers, who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Liberia, received an experimental therapy called ZMapp, a cocktail of antibodies made by tiny California biotech Mapp Biopharmaceutical. They recovered and were released from hospital last week.

The virus has already killed an unprecedented number of health workers and is still being spread in a many places, the WHO said. About 40 percent of the cases have occurred within the past 21 days, its statistics showed.

Previous Ebola outbreaks have mainly occurred in isolated areas of Central Africa. However the current epidemic has spread to three West African capitals and Lagos, Africa's biggest city. The WHO said special attention would need to be given to stopping transmission in capital cities and major ports.

“This epidemic is a challenge. Challenging to Liberia and challenging to all of those who are friends and partners of Liberia,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said on Wednesday, receiving a donation of ambulances from the Indian community.

“We can only return to our normal business … if together we beat this demon that is amongst us.” 

Authorities in Nigeria announced the doctor's death in Port Harcourt, the main oil industry terminal of Africa's largest crude exporter. The doctor had treated a patient who evaded quarantine after coming into contact with Patrick Sawyer – a U.S. citizen who died in Lagos after flying in from Liberia last month.

Health Ministry spokesman Dan Nwomeh wrote in his Twitter feed that 70 people were now under surveillance in Port Harcourt, which is home to foreigners working for international oil companies.

A spokesman for leading operator Royal Dutch Shell said in London that the firm was “liaising with health authorities on the steps being taken to contain the disease”.

Oil traders in Europe said insurance premiums for Nigerian cargoes had gone up slightly, but otherwise business was continuing as normal.

Analysts urged caution. “While major disruption to oil production appears unlikely, any further spread of Ebola … is likely to cause serious operational challenges,” said Roddy Barclay of the Control Risks consultancy.

According to new figures released on Thursday, Nigeria has recorded 17 cases, including six deaths, from Ebola, since Sawyer collapsed upon arrival at Lagos airport in late July.

While Nigeria has yet to suffer any major economic disruption, the International Monetary Fund said the smaller, poorer nations at the heart of the epidemic were being badly hurt. “The Ebola outbreak is having an acute macroeconomic and social impact on three already fragile countries in West Africa,” IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters in Washington.

Rice said the IMF was assessing the impact and any extra financing needs with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The Lagos case contributed to the decision by a number of airlines to halt services to Ebola-affected countries. Air France said on Wednesday it had suspended flights to Sierra Leone on the advice of the French government.

Aylward said it was vital to restore commercial airline routes to the region to help transport aid workers and supplies, but in the meantime the WHO plan includes an “air bridge” to be operated by the U.N.'s World Food Programme.

“We assume current airline limitations will stop within the next couple of weeks. This is absolutely vital,” he said. “Right now the aid effort risks being choked off.”

West African health ministers meeting in Ghana on Thursday echoed the WHO's concerns and called for the reopening of borders and an end to flight bans.

West African Ebola epidemic ‘out of control,’ aid group says


An Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is out of control and requires massive resources from governments and aid agencies to prevent it spreading further, medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said on Monday.

In its latest report on the crisis, the U.N. World Health Organization said the regional death toll had reached 350 since February. The crisis is already the deadliest outbreak since Ebola first emerged in central Africa in 1976.

The disease has not previously occurred in the West Africa region and local people remain frightened of it and view health facilities with suspicion. This makes it harder to bring it under control, MSF said in a statement.

At the same time, MSF said, a lack of understanding has meant people continue to prepare corpses and attend funerals of Ebola victims, leaving them vulnerable to a disease transmitted by touching victims or through bodily fluids.

“The epidemic is out of control,” said Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations. “With the appearance of new sites in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, there is a real risk of it spreading to other areas.”

Civil society groups, governments and religious authorities have also failed to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic and as a result few prominent figures are promoting the fight against the disease, the statement said.

“Ebola is no longer a public health issue limited to Guinea. It is affecting the whole of West Africa,” said Janssens, urging WHO, affected countries and their neighbours to deploy more resources especially trained medical staff.

Guinea's health minister rejected the MSF statement, saying it did not reflect the reality of the situation in the country.

“Today we have all our contacts under control and we are monitoring them regularly,” Remy Lamah told Reuters.

Lamah said the only pocket of the country that remained a concern was a handful of villages on the Liberia and Sierra Leone border where people were resisting efforts to fight the disease due to local and traditional beliefs.

“Even there we are making progress,” he said.

Ebola has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent and there is no vaccine and no known cure. The virus initially causes raging fever, headaches, muscle pain, conjunctivitis and weakness, before moving into more severe phases with vomiting, diarrhoea and haemorrhages.

MSF has treated some 470 patients, 215 of them confirmed cases, in specialised centres in the region but the organisation said it had reached the limit of its capacity.

Patients have been identified in more than 60 locations across the three countries making it harder to curb the outbreak. All three countries recorded new cases between June 15 and 19, according to the latest WHO report.

Sierra Leone, which did not confirm Ebola in the country until late last month, was the most affected with 39 new cases and eight new deaths, mostly in the Kailahun district near its border with Guinea and Liberia, WHO said.

WHO said it was working with all three governments to improve coordination and communication across the region.

West African health ministers are due to meet in Ghana on July 2 to improve the regional response.

Additional reporting by Saliou Samb in Conakry; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams

Teshuva in Liberia: Moving from ruin to reconciliation


Sometimes, when you visit a place that is full of so much pain, the stories — and days — begin to bleed into one another. 

The stories of the people of Liberia, whose ferocious civil war ended only nine years ago, reveal horrifying trends through 14 years of fighting. Scant memories are shared nowadays of life before the war (not easy, but peaceful at least), many more of the terror as waves of rebel forces pushed their way through the country, massacring thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands, many never to return. There are stories of families torn apart, stories of unthinkable brutality, the constant and consistent terror of violence unabated, the devastation of social structures (all schools and medical centers in the country shut down, the private sector evaporated completely) and desperate food shortages for far too many years. 

Yes, all war is devastating, but the war in the West African nation of Liberia was characterized by a particular brutality — perhaps because it was orchestrated by a man with a compulsion toward the obscene, specializing in vicious and pervasive rape of women and girls as young as 3 years old, perpetrated often by boys and young men not much older than their victims. When this war made it to the headlines of the Western press, it was generally because of this noxious detail: the small boys who were abducted and initiated into Charles Taylor’s army by being shot up with drugs and forced to commit heinous crimes against members of their own villages — often their own families. This ensured that they’d dedicate themselves wholly to the war effort, having eviscerated all hope of returning home. Later, this tactic was taken up by Taylor’s enemies as well — warlords who attacked the same tired population in their own effort to wrest power from the powerful in Monrovia.

Toward the end of my time in rabbinical school, in the late 1990s, I began to study human rights and conflict resolution in earnest. At the time, Charles Taylor had become president of Liberia and was presiding over the second deadly phase of civil war there, while perpetuating the war in neighboring resource-rich Sierra Leone. Over the course of that decade, two lush and promising African countries were crushed by waves of senseless violence perpetrated against civilians — murder, rape, torture and, especially in Sierra Leone, amputations: arms, legs, breasts, ears. (It was his criminal acts in Sierra Leone that earned Taylor his recent conviction in The Hague, sentencing him to 50 years in prison.) As the fighting raged in both countries, I’d run between Talmud classes to the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University to watch video clips of these boy soldiers — some 10 or 11 years old — riding around the countryside on the backs of beat-up pickup trucks with their rifles, cigarettes and sunglasses. They clearly had no comprehension of the devastation they were causing, no sense that the atrocities they were committing would take generations to heal. I found myself wondering what would happen to the boy soldiers and their families when the war ended. This question haunted me, and I set out to determine whether the vast Jewish literature on teshuvah — reconciliation and forgiveness — might offer any insight that could help bring healing once the fighting ceased.

After a decade and a half of fighting, the war that transformed Liberia’s beautiful countryside into a post-apocalyptic nightmare reached a triumphant denouement. In 2003, as the conflict reached a fevered pitch with Taylor’s enemies closing in on the capital city of Monrovia, thousands of women came together proclaiming the simple message: “We want peace. No more war.”  WIPNET (the Women in Peacebuilding Network), a group of extraordinary women led by Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, wore white T-shirts and scarves and sat in the blazing sun and pouring rain, refusing to move until the men made peace. “We were not afraid,” one of the women of WIPNET told me. “Either we will die from war or we will die fighting to make peace.” The women stared down generals, warlords and soldiers. Gbowee stood before President Taylor and proclaimed:

“The women of Liberia are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children.  Because we believe, as custodians of our society, that tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’ ”

And the women prevailed, ultimately bringing down the Taylor regime and disarming the rebels and militias on all sides. In the first free election after the war, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gbowee) was chosen to be the president of the new Liberia — a nation devastated by war and desperate for healing. 

I traveled to the region with Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service and a small cohort of Jewish thought leaders and philanthropists to see the country in the aftermath of conflict and disarmament. We set out to meet the architects of peace and the leaders of NGOs working toward women’s empowerment, social and economic justice, and sustainable development, and to hear perspectives on the possibility of reconciliation. A few years ago, Liberia began a truth and reconciliation process, but it was aborted midcourse when it became clear that high-ranking government officials would be implicated for wartime actions. As a result, talks of reconciliation have stalled, and while Gbowee and some others continue to plead for a reinvigorated reconciliation process, the people I spoke with talked mainly of moving on. “You must forget about it,” a young woman whose little brother was shot as he stood by her side, told me through tears. “Otherwise you’ll never be able to move on with your life.”

“Forgive and forget. It’s the only way to start living again,” a member of the hotel staff told me.

“We just want peace,” our driver, Mike, said. “Who did what, who didn’t do what — it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re willing to lay down their arms, that’s all that I care about.” 

Forgive and forget? Move on? These words made me tremble every time I heard them. Perhaps it is because of my Jewish bias for justice. The fact is, there can be no justice without, well, justice — which is why I see a reconciliation process as both a spiritual and political necessity. How can a society be rebuilt when the man in the market stall next to you killed your child or raped your sister? And even if it’s possible to forgive and forget, is that really a social value? 

A true reconciliation process in Liberia presents some serious challenges, not the least of which is the absurdity many perceive in investing money and resources into a lengthy reconciliation process at a time when the country is starving for basic services. Liberia’s heath systems were utterly destroyed in war, and there are now only a few dozen doctors serving a population of nearly 4 million people in decrepit and under-resourced hospitals and clinics. Maternal and infant mortality rates are among the world’s highest, and children commonly die for lack of basic medical care. (We saw a young girl walking around with an infected open sore on her leg, something that would have been treated easily in the United States. I shudder to think what will happen as that infection inevitably spreads and she loses her ability to walk.)  Because all of the schools were shuttered for 14 years, there is now an entire population of 8- to 30-year-olds who do not know how to read or write. The private sector remains virtually nonexistent, and foreign economic investment is often spent to the detriment of the Liberian people, as multinational corporations reap extraordinary profit from the land and sea and share little with the population. Only 2 percent of the country is on the electrical grid, and even in our very lovely hotel in the capital, there was no electricity or running water for much of our stay. And, as President Sirleaf shared with our group, rape remains a blight on the nation — she identifies it as one of the three greatest challenges the country faces. Teenage pregnancy is among the highest in the world; women have little access to contraceptives and therefore tend to have six to 10 children, etc., etc., etc.

And yet, I continue to wonder what chance this country — or any, really — has for recovery if it does not deal responsibly with its past. 

It is true that healing takes time, and it may be that in another five to 10 years people will be ready for a reconciliation effort that interests few today. Whether it is implemented now or in a decade, it is clear to me that, for people to recover from the devastation of war, a sincere and robust national reconciliation effort is essential. The rush to move on as soon as arms are put down is understandable, but it fails to adequately address people’s deepest wounds, thereby threatening to undermine an already fragile peace. Placing reconciliation, even forgiveness, in the heart of the political arena and making it a national priority can create space for the possibility of healing and rebuilding.

Every conflict is unique, and as a result, there can be no one formula for an effective reconciliation process. What worked in South Africa would not have been successful in Guatemala, Sri Lanka or Northern Ireland. Specific cultural and religious assumptions must be central to the construction of any postwar effort. Nevertheless, there are several elements of teshuvah, the Jewish process of return and reconciliation, that I believe could offer a framework for healing in Liberia and other post-conflict regions. The first is the presumption that transformation is possible, both for an individual and for a society: Who you were in your darkest moment, high on drugs and war, is not who you must forever be. Second, one can choose to engage the enemy with empathy and compassion without diminishing one’s own pain or letting the perpetrator off the hook. War is the ultimate in dehumanization; reconciliation is about people beginning to see humanity in one another again. Third, there are certain crimes that are beyond the scope of full teshuvah — complete return — including rape and murder, trademarks of this war, like most. Nevertheless, some things can be done to restore social harmony and help rebuild a country’s infrastructure at the same time.


Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR (www.ikar-la.org), an L.A.-based Jewish community working to reanimate Jewish life by fusing spiritual practice and social justice, tradition and soul, piety and chutzpah. This year, she was noted as the No. 5 rabbi in the country by Newsweek/ Daily Beast, and she was listed among the Forward’s 50 most influential American Jews three years in a row.

African countries honor apartheid-fighting Jews with stamps


Three African countries issued a set of commemorative postal sheets remembering famous Jews who fought apartheid in South Africa.

Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia issued the three black-and-white postal stamp sheets at the beginning of March.

“This stamp issue acknowledges the extraordinary sacrifices made by Jews to the liberation of their African brethren, and these stamps recognize some of the most significant contributors to global humanity in the 20th Century,” reads the introduction to a website dedicated to the new stamps.

The stamps honor from Liberia, Helen Suzman, Eli Weinberg, Esther Barsel and Hymie Barsel; from Sierra Leone, Yetta Barenblatt, Ray Alexander Simons, Baruch Hirson and Norma Kitson; and from Gambia, Ruth First, Hilda Bernstein, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein and Ronald Segal.