Amelia Togba-Addy lives in Atlanta, but Ebola is always on her mind.
Like many Liberian Americans, she has family and friends in West Africa, where Ebola has killed nearly 900 people. In Liberia alone, the World Health Organization has reported almost 500 cases and more than 250 deaths so far.
So when Togba-Addy’s aunt called early one morning last week, she panicked.
“The first thing I thought about was, ‘Oh! A family member has come down with the virus,’ ” she says. “So I started crying.”
What her aunt said next seemed to confirm her fear. It’s your brother, her aunt told her. He’s been vomiting blood.
“I said, ‘Oh Lord! I’m finished,’ ” Togba-Addy recalls.
In the end, the problem turned out to be an ulcer — not Ebola. But Togba-Addy says it was enough of a scare that she had to do something to help her fellow Liberians.
It’s been difficult to contain the largest Ebola outbreak in history, partly because of misunderstanding. This year’s outbreak is the first in Liberia, and many locals there are understandably not familiar with the nature of the virus, how it spreads or what treatment to seek.
So international health officials have been activating a phone network that spans continents — enlisting Liberian Americans like Togba-Addy to help clear the confusion by reaching out to their families back home.
Mobile phones are everywhere in Liberia, even in places where electricity and water are scarce, says Craig Manning, a health communications specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We can move information through these channels perhaps even more effectively than we can through social mobilization programs in country,” he says.
Manning spoke Sunday at the Liberian Association of Metro Atlanta’s offices, where Togba-Addy and more than a hundred fellow immigrants gathered to ask questions about Ebola. And there were a lot.
“Ebola is from a monkey. How did the animal get Ebola?” one person asks.
And should people avoid bush meat — like monkey and bats? Yes, Manning tells them.
In some small and remote villages, the disease has been overwhelming. And residents don’t know what to do with the bodies — keep them at home or put them outside?
“Keeping those dead bodies in the streets — is it more safe?” another man asks. “Or is it more dangerous in terms of the virus?”
It’s more dangerous to keep the bodies in public places, Manning tells them.
His overall message that night was clear: Tell your loved ones what Ebola is, what it isn’t, how it’s spread and how to avoid exposure.
“We’re leaving no stone unturned, in the sense of trying to reach out,” Manning says.