Two days ago I accepted a job offer from Samaritan’s Purse to join their team in Liberia — and if all the paperwork goes right, I’ll be leaving this Sunday (10/12/14).
My official job title will be “Ebola Virus Disease Monitoring & Evaluation & Information Officer”. Here’s the official job description summary, from Samaritan’s Purse:
The M&E / Information Officer will hold dual oversight roles. As M&E officer, the main responsibility will be to ensure chains of data collection, certify data quality and verify all OFDA/SP standard indicators are being accurately tracked and interpreted. As Information Officer, the primary responsibilities include collecting, organizing, and summarizing information about humanitarian conditions and the overall SP response. He/she is the gatekeeper for the information that circulates during a response, into succinct, accurate, and timely reports.
I’m super excited to step into this role. As an engineer with Liberian teaching experience, I can’t think of a better job for myself in this outbreak.
My past year in Liberia has effectively been a crash-course in the challenges of data collection in Liberia / West Africa. In my classroom I had to come up with clever ways of insuring that the data that I collected from my students (in the form of the tests they took) reflected their actual abilities. If you’ve kept up with my blog, you’ll be aware of some of the cultural and systemic challenges wrapped up in that problem. Now, it looks like I’ll be working to insure that that data Samaritan’s Purse is collecting about the Ebola outbreak is reflecting the reality of the situation on the ground.
Of course, this is just a job description — who knows what else I’ll be asked to do once I get there. There’s a lot of work to be done, and not enough people to do it.
Meanwhile, the outbreak in West Africa continues to explode. Here’s a graph of the number of cases, through 10/1/14. (source)
What we’re looking at here is exponential growth — the number of cases is doubling every three weeks. This is terrifying. This is already more cases than in all previous known Ebola outbreaks combined. And keep in mind that due to underreporting, the actual numbers are probably much higher — the current estimate is that for every four cases reported, an additional six are unreported.
Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC said in a recent article, “The speed at which things are moving on the ground, it’s hard for people to get their minds around. People don’t understand the concept of exponential growth.”
As a math teacher, I couldn’t agree more with Frieden’s statement. The magnitude of exponential growth is not intuitive. Let me give you an example. Which do you think is more: being given one million dollars, or one penny the first day, double that penny the next day, then double the previous day’s pennies and so on for a month?
Most people will choose the former. Intuitively, it’s hard to see how the pennies will add up. I mean, we get the sense that it will be large, but without mathematical training, it’s hard to comprehend just HOW large (it turns out to be over 10 million dollars).
And so this is the problem we’re looking at with Ebola. As Frieden goes on to say, “Exponential growth in the context of three weeks means, ‘If I know that X needs to be done, and I work my butt off and get it done in three weeks, it’s now half as good as it needs to be.’”
Do you realize how nuts this is? One health promoter with Doctors Without Borders painted a good word-picture: it’s like “fighting a forest fire with spray bottles”.
Right now the forecast from the WHO is over 13,000 cases by mid-November if conditions continue. Here’s a nice interactive graph from the Huffington Post. From there, some worst-case scenarios from the CDC estimate 1.4 million by the end of January.
In Western media there’s been a lot of hysteria about Ebola spreading in America. This needs to stop. The fact is, that with functional health care systems and social services that can provide contact tracing, the chances of it becoming out of control in a developed country is virtually nil. Compared to other diseases, Ebola is not very contagious. So why is it spreading like wildfire in West Africa? Check out my previous blog post.
Still, people here are scared and calling for bans on flights from West Africa. This is a bad idea. Trying to seal ourselves off from West Africa will restrict aid to the region, making the outbreaks worse and eventually creating more risk for ourselves in the long run. Even if you didn’t care about the people in West Africa, it’s in our own self interest to stop this thing rather than burying our heads in the sand.
Stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa is no easy problem, no matter how you look at it. But out of all the organizations I could have ended up working for, I’m excited I ended up with Samaritan’s Purse, for a number of reasons:
- From the beginning, they’ve had a clear idea about the gravity of the situation, even when others didn’t. When Ken Isaacs, VP of Programs and Government Relations at Samaritan’s Purse presented in front of congress way back in August I just about got out of my seat and applauded, because it was the first time I heard a report that matched my intuitions of the situation.
- They’re big enough to move supplies and charter flights, but small and self-contained enough that they can respond fast to changing conditions, unlike larger NGOs or big government bureaucracy.
- They’re a Christian organization. Even if I wasn’t Christian myself, I would say this was a huge asset. Liberia is 85.5% Christian. Community mobilization in Liberia often happens through the Church. I mean, it was women working through the church that brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War. And Samaritan’s Purse has had a country office in Liberia over a decade, building trust and relationships that are desperately needed for this effort.
As I’ve started telling people that I’m headed to Liberia, I’ve gotten a lot of people expressing concerns for my safety. I can assure you that I’ll take every precaution available. Yes, it’s a volatile situation, and could get much worse. But our perceptions of risk aren’t always accurate. And there’s plenty of people already there risking more than I am. But when it comes down to it, I would rather risk death than not be where I felt I was supposed to be.