9:22 am - Wednesday November 4, 2015

Ebola Sickens a Third American Missionary

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A third American missionary has been infected with Ebola while working in Liberia and is being treated in an isolation unit in the Monrovia hospital where he works, putting into sharp focus the risks and ethical dilemmas confronting missionaries around the world.

The doctor, who wasn’t identified, is the second missionary working for SIM USA, a Charlotte, N.C., Christian organization, to contract the deadly disease. Nancy Writebol, a SIM USA missionary, and Kent Brantly, a doctor working for Samaritan’s Purse, another U.S.-based Christian group, were evacuated last month to an isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Both recovered from the disease and were discharged.

The doctor is “doing well and is in good spirits,” the organization said. Another American doctor has been sent to Liberia to care for him, according to a spokesman. It isn’t clear whether he will be evacuated to the U.S.; SIM USA is going to explore all options, the spokesman said.

The unnamed American doctor has been in Liberia only a few weeks. He was sent in after Dr. Brantly fell ill, said Bruce Johnson, SIM USA’s president, in an interview last month.

Ebola has infected at least 3,069 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, killing 1,552 of them, including a Spanish Catholic priest who was evacuated to Spain after contracting the disease. Since then, hundreds of missionaries and foreign aid workers have been evacuated.”It’s this constant tension of being able to send people in who have the expertise and knowledge to serve,” while also trying to ensure worker safety, SIM’s Mr. Johnson said. Missionaries “are fully aware” of the risks, he said. “They feel a call to serve.”

Among the many thousands of missionaries of various faiths who answer that call, the worst Ebola outbreak in history is prompting soul-searching: How much should they risk to serve increasingly desperate populations? Is it right to get treatment unavailable to others? When is it too dangerous to stay? And what message does it send when they leave?

Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol were treated with an experimental drug that hadn’t yet been offered to any Africans and that now is no longer available. Doctors haven’t yet determined whether the drug was helpful to the two Americans. So far, their medical and transport costs have approached $2 million—much of it paid for by insurance.

“It’s a real gut check,” said Seth Barnes, a missionary and executive director of Adventures in Missions. The Georgia-based Christian group has sent 100,000 missionaries mostly on short-term humanitarian stints in the last 25 years. “You go back and you say: Why am I doing this? Was I called by God? Is the stuff that I say I believe really real?”

Throughout history, missionaries and aid workers have routinely put themselves at risk to serve others. In the 19th century, missionaries would pack their belongings in caskets, expecting to die in far-off countries. Today, missionaries’ mortality rate is vastly improved, though there have been some high-profile deaths in recent years.Even in remote places, modern missionaries can connect to home and the news via mobile phones and the Internet. Some have access to a network of security personnel, risk-analysis assessments, doctors and vehicles that can spirit them away from danger.

As more missions rely on a mix of local and international staff, American missionaries say they often struggle when faced with the decision whether to leave local colleagues.

“I certainly am aware I have a ‘get out of jail free card’ with my U.S. passport,” said Matt McGarry, a country director for Catholic Relief Services based in Jerusalem. Mr. McGarry recently returned to Gaza after evacuating during the worst fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Ismail Mehr, president of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, said he understands the impulse of aid workers to stay. But doing so can hurt the long-run cause: “You have an obligation to your volunteers. If you don’t take care of them, the next time you have an Ebola outbreak or a Gaza or a Haiti, you are not going to have people who are going to go there.”

Developing countries often rely on an ad hoc network of religious missions and nongovernmental organizations to supplement or provide basic services, which can be affected when foreigners pull out.

F. Zeela Zaizay, a Liberian nurse working for MAP International, a Christian health organization, said he was working with Italian and German mission groups on an education initiative to prevent the spread of Ebola when they recently pulled out.

“When they left, it meant that almost all of my dreams were almost broken,” Mr. Zaizay said recently. Still, he said, “I understand why they go.”

Some stay despite the dangers. As Ebola began to ravage West Africa this spring, Augustine Aiyadurai, a devout Christian from southern India, wrote that he and other missionaries at Liberia’s remote Curran Lutheran Hospital were struggling over whether to evacuate. “In the Lord’s prayer we say, ‘Give us this day our daily Bread,’ ” he emailed a friend. “I now pray, give us this day the decision we need to take.”

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