Ebola faded from U.S. news reports months ago, but the Centers for Disease Control is far from finished working in West Africa, and so is Bend native Amanda MacGurn.
MacGurn will travel to Mauritania and the Democratic Republic of Congo this fall as part of her work with the CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine.
At the height of the outbreak she deployed four times to assist airports in Guinea and Mali, and now she’s part of a team that’s working with seaports and airports throughout West Africa so that they’ll be able to prevent the spread of disease in the future.
One reason the ebola outbreak was so hard to contain is that people move easily between Guinea, where it started, and Sierra Leone and Liberia. While most of the 28,000-plus cases and more than 11,000 deaths occurred in those countries, ebola also spread to Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The World Health Organization recently declared for a second time that Liberia was free of ebola transmission, but three new cases were reported, one in Sierra Leone and two in Guinea, the week of Aug. 30.
The CDC, which has offices in 50 countries and opened one in Guinea this year, is committed to working on ebola until there are no new cases. “As long as there are cases in West Africa, the rest of the world is at risk,” MacGurn said.
The CDC tightened screening of travelers from affected countries and started actively monitoring them in the U.S. last October, after a Liberian man who was sick with ebola flew to Dallas, and two American nurses were infected. The Liberian, Thomas Duncan, died, but the two nurses recovered. The cases received a lot of attention in U.S. media and may have contributed to Americans’ fear of ebola and belief that it spreads easily, according to a New England Journal of Medicine review of public opinion polls. At the height of concern, 45 percent of Americans said they were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that they or family members would become sick with ebola.
Ultimately, 18,672 travelers entered the United States from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from last October through May, according to the CDC. Over the same time frame, more than 200,000 travelers were screened in ebola-affected countries, and 150 people were denied from boarding planes, according to the CDC.
MacGurn, who spent most of her time at the international airport in Guinea, said screening for ebola symptoms was a huge undertaking for such a resource-poor country. The airport had to build isolation rooms where ill passengers could be pulled aside, and the airport had to acquire noncontact thermometers.
The screeners were medical students and nurses working 24-hour shifts, and MacGurn said they’d seen family members, classmates and professors die of ebola disease. “Our counterparts at the international airport were dedicated individuals and really afraid for their country and fighting for their people,” she said.
Ebola is dangerous, but contrary to what many Americans believed, it spreads through direct contact, not the air or water. When MacGurn arrived in Guinea last September, she helped train everyone at the airport on the basics of preventing ebola’s transmission. That included making sure water in hand-washing stations was properly chlorinated, and, as an extra precaution, encouraging people not to touch each other, MacGurn said.
Touching is second-nature in West African cultures, and funeral practices that include touching the body have been cited as another obstacle in preventing the spread of ebola. “People are really friendly,” MacGurn said. “They hug, and they kiss.”
On her last deployment, MacGurn spent a week in the Guinean district of Forecariah near the border with Sierra Leone, where an international team was going house-to-house to find cases, and prevent the spread of disease into Sierra Leone.
MacGurn knew little about ebola and even less about West Africa when the CDC put the call out last summer for any staff members who were fluent in French to volunteer for deployment. MacGurn put up her hand.
She’d been employed full-time at the CDC only since late July, but she always hoped that her job as a health communications specialist would include speaking French in an international setting. “It was an exciting start,” she said.
MacGurn, 32, earned a master’s degree in public health from Emory University in Atlanta and previously worked as a CDC fellow on a campaign around preventing eye infections among contact lens wearers. A former Peace Corps volunteer, MacGurn immediately took to West Africa and the work on ebola.
“People were so warm and open in ways I don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world. My heart really breaks for them. It’s been a really devastating year,” she said. “The fight’s not over just yet.”