10/09/2014 05:37 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST

After Ebola, Let's Not Forget Sierra Leone


by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

A decade before the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we stood at the Freetown dock in Sierra Leone's capital awaiting a shipment of health supplies for the country's eastern Kono district. The civil war had recently ended and the traumatized nation was beginning to rebuild.

We made small talk with staffers from other international charities, asking what kind supplies they awaited. Their answers left us speechless.

"We're not shipping in. We're shipping out," said one who was especially dejected, their charity's resources depleted. "When's the last time you saw a celebrity telethon for Sierra Leone?"

We couldn't blame them -- an escalation in Afghanistan had replaced Sierra Leone as the dominant headline, and in the competitive field of global development, you go where the attention is or you lose relevance and donations. But Sierra Leone needed long-term attention back then, and this time around, once the world beats back Ebola, this beleaguered nation will need help rebuilding its future.

Civil war had crippled Sierra Leone. We met children who'd been forcibly recruited as soldiers, drugged into compliance and ordered to commit brutal acts. We watched a playground of students scatter in fear at the loud bang of a book hitting the ground, mistaking it for gunfire. Schools, health systems, social networks and psyches were in tatters.

But Canadian children never abandoned Sierra Leone. Since the war, their small but determined efforts have raised funds to build 35 schoolrooms in Kono district -- educating 700 students a day. Two clean water projects have been built; an animal husbandry program with goats and chickens provides steady income for over 100 families.

On our multiple visits to the region we've seen the life-changing impact of these young Canadians' attention. Kono's junior high school has a science lab, library and playground, plus sports days and music, dance and literary clubs -- subjects never considered during the violence more than a decade ago. Students distribute leaflets about children's rights and mosquito nets to fight malaria in a country with the world's fifth-highest prevalence of the killer disease.

These promising examples don't diminish the massive challenges that Sierra Leone faced before Ebola struck. The country remains in the bottom five of the United Nations' Human Development Index with a life expectancy under 46 years. Over half the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day, and one in five children die before age five.

But there was hope. And children had dreams.

On our last visit, before Ebola struck, we met young people who define resilience. Sarah Karim sees the scars of civil war on her way to school every day, and her single mother buys charcoal in the surrounding villages and resells to provide for her four children. Yet because Sarah is in school, the teen still dared to envision "a good job, sustainable income, loving family and peaceful community." Several classmates dream of becoming doctors -- a crucial profession in a country with one physician for every 50,000 people and many health crises to tackle.

Indeed, this worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history has been abetted by a critical lack of health infrastructure -- and we can't help but think back to that day on the dock. Would today's headlines be different if those aid shipments had been coming in for the long haul instead of going out to the next crisis zone?

The global community is admirably directing attention and resources--though still not yet enough--to towards West Africa for the struggle against Ebola.

Like a decade ago, the goal is to end the Ebola crisis and allow a nation to begin its recovery. The next step will be to re-open schools shuttered by chaos and fear, allowing the next generation of health practitioners to be educated. But success will only be achieved -- and the next crisis averted before it begins -- if we all follow the example of those Canadian children who refused to ship out of Sierra Leone until the job was done.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


  • Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
    Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
    Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
  • You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
    You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne, so unless someone coughed their phlegm directly into your mouth, you wouldn't catch the disease. Though medical staff will take every precaution to avoid coming into contact with the body of an infected person at all costs, with stringent hygiene there should be a way to contain the virus if it reaches the UK.
  • Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
    Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
  • Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
    Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
  • Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
    Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
    LEON NEAL via Getty Images
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
  • Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
    Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.
  • Ebola doesn't have a cure
    Ebola doesn't have a cure
    John Moore via Getty Images
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British sufferer William Pooley and two other Americans who caught the disease in west Africa and they all recovered. Supplies of the drug have now run dry, and it has not been through clinical trials to prove its effectiveness. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug's supplies are exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch. But an Ebola cure is very much on the horizon, and would have come sooner had it been seen as any kind of priority for drug companies before it started reaching the western world.
  • Ebola is a death sentence
    Ebola is a death sentence
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are more positive, a death rate of around 60%. Those who have decent, strong immune systems, are able to access intravenous fluids and scrupulous health care are far more likely to survive, which is why the survival rate of westerners who contract the disease is far better. Experts have suggested that, rather than waste money on pointless airport screenings, funds could be used to improve infrastructure in the affected nations to help halt the spread of the disease at source.
  • Ebola turns you into a zombie
    Ebola turns you into a zombie
    Renee Keith via Getty Images
    Just, no.