Monrovia – When Ebola crossed from Guinea into Liberia, launching an aggressive chain of transmission that would quickly make it the worst outbreak of the virus in history, Anne Atai Omoruto sprang into action.
The Ugandan doctor with 14 years’ experience in battling the tropical pathogen packed her bags immediately and journeyed into harm’s way.
Since July, she has trained around 1 000 health care workers on behalf of the World Health Organisation (WHO), saving countless lives and becoming a rare symbol of African unity.
“This is my vocation. I committed myself to treat people, to make them better,” the 58-year-old told AFP at the Island Clinic in Monrovia, where she was leading a team of 12 Ugandan doctors, nurses and assistants.
“I became a national asset for the [health ministry] of Uganda, so when there was a call by the WHO Africa region for human resources willing to come to Liberia, I responded.”
Married with five grown-up children, she left her family to travel with her team to Monrovia and immediately began training health workers in the John F. Kennedy Medical Centre, Monrovia’s main hospital.
Omoruto describes the situation facing her team when they arrived as “a scene out of a horror movie”.
“There were more dead bodies than living patients. People were dying at home, in the markets, on the streets, in the hospitals and in the only Ebola treatment unit that existed at that time,” she says.
Disturbed and scared, Omoruto went to work amid a widespread sense of “disbelief, helplessness and, to some extent, panic”, speaking on local radio to challenge the prevailing view that Ebola was incurable.
During her time in Monrovia the WHO was criticised for waiting until August, almost five months after the outbreak was identified to declare it a “public health emergency of international concern”.
The West also came under fire for a response that saw west African states treated as pariahs as the virus spread from one single case in December, a two-year-old boy in southern Guinea across neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone.
But that all changed when aid workers started falling ill and going home for treatment, resulting in the first-ever domestic infections outside of Africa, two in the United States and one in Spain.
From a position of indifference just a few months ago, the West has rallied to the cause, sending thousands of troops and medics to Africa and developing a dozen possible treatments and vaccines that are undergoing tests.
Many diseases, among them influenza, measles and malaria, cause more deaths, but Ebola is an insidious killer, laying waste to the already chronically weak health care systems that are fighting it.
Even before the Ebola crisis, Liberia and Sierra Leone, both struggling to rebuild after ruinous civil wars spanning the 1990s, had one and two doctors respectively per 100 000 people.
Guinea, which has been held back by decades of violent political instability and beset by poverty, was faring no better, with the same numbers as Liberia.
None has been able to absorb the astonishing death toll of 350 doctors and nurses — more than half in Liberia, caused in part by bad luck and Ebola’s infectious nature, but also by poor training.
Omoruto opened a 120-bed Ebola treatment centre at the Island Clinic on 21 September, primarily to treat patients but also to act as a hothouse, turning unschooled heath care workers into Ebola experts.
She says her team was confronted by a local medical workforce that was “scared stiff” by the bodies piling up on the ward and unused to wearing uncomfortable biohazard suits.
But with hard work they began to get on top of the crisis, and Omoruto recalls “much jubilation and singing” as the first survivors were discharged.
Now one or two cases are admitted each day, down from a peak of 25. While at the height of the crisis 215 patients were crammed into the clinic, now there are fewer than 25.
Composed and unflappable, Omoruto has a natural bedside manner and an inner calm that has served her well when the going has got tough.
She steers clear of politics, seeing her role as being with the patients rather than talking to functionaries in government offices.
“I only take off the white coat when I am in the community, but even then I am educating and mobilising support for government messages on Ebola response,” she says.
Now back in Uganda, she remembers above all the “very many friends and, I am sure, a few enemies” she made in Liberia.
“Slowly, by drawing on the Ugandan experience, I was able to draw up a plan, build a team, implement the plan, and have lived to tell the success story,” she says.