Lisa Varnes-Epstein, a physician assistant and mid-wife living in rural Gays Mills, left this week for a six-week volunteer mission in Sierra Leone, Africa to work in an Ebola treatment center.
Varnes-Epstein expected to be stationed in Sierra Leone at one of three possible clinics as a volunteer through Partners in Health.
PIH runs numerous projects around the world, all focused on providing healthcare to populations in dire need. They are currently staffing Ebola treatment centers in Freetown, Port Loko, and Koidu, Sierra Leone and another center in Grand Gedeh, Liberia.
Varnes-Epstein will not know which center she is working in until her arrival.
“The situation is so fluid, there is no way to determine where people are most needed prior to our departure,” Varnes-Epstein noted.
Varnes-Epstein served in the Koinadugu District of Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer after college, making her a valuable asset since she speaks the native language and is familiar with the culture.
Aspects of the culture have complicated the local response to Ebola.
“They have very old beliefs tying bleeding to witchcraft,” said Varnes-Epstein. “And because Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever (victims can suffer otherwise unexplained bruising and bleeding), they can draw this conclusion that a witch is somehow involved.”
This has caused some of those living in the more remote areas to avoid strangers and to not seek care when symptoms arise, she noted.
“People are still running into the bush, afraid to come in,” Varnes-Epstein said.
The situation is creating additional crises for the culture, leaving many orphaned children without care as extended family fears to bring them into their homes.
“Some elders have also begun asking that their families not celebrate their funerals in the traditional manner to minimize risk,” Varnes-Epstein said.
Traditional funeral ceremonies involve family and the community gathering with the body, which they wash, touch and kiss as signs of respect with which to usher them into the afterlife.
Varnes-Epstein will return to the U.S on February 26. She will then be under a 21-day minimized contact, self-imposed quarantine, as dictated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She will be checked daily by a county health nurse for signs of infection.
The risk of transmission is extremely low, according to Varnes-Epstein.
“Ebola is not an airborne disease,” Varnes-Epstein. “It requires direct contact with body fluids from a patient with active symptoms.”
Symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure to Ebola, but the average is eight to 10 days.
In the event of her own infection, Varnes-Epstein noted she would be removed for treatment at the first sign of a fever, most likely to Madison.
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You too can help in the fight against this disease. Partners in Health can always use financial help. To donate, visit http://www.pih.org/support.
To keep abreast of developments in the fight to contain and treat Ebola, you can read the World Health Organizations Ebola program webpages at http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/en/
Varnes-Epstein continues to be involved with the district where she served during her Peace Corps years, having returned as a volunteer at the Nar Sarah Clinic and continuing to raise funds for their work. To learn more or to donate to Nar Sarah, visit http://www.seed-narsarah.org/.