Ebola’s Long Shadow: After the Epidemic, Moms and Babies Remain Victims or are Still Suffering

Giving By Emily Larson September 12, 2017

Heidi Murkoff, author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”

We all remember the horrific Ebola outbreak that gripped West Africa just a couple of years ago. More than 11,000 people died from the virus, most of them in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Children were orphaned, parents were left childless, entire families were nearly wiped out. Yet as heartbreaking as the immediate human toll of Ebola was, the deadly ripple effects of the epidemic were far more wide-reaching.

No group was hit harder by Ebola’s long shadow than expectant moms and their babies. And tragically, they continue to suffer its affects.

The virus destroyed the fragile health care systems of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, but was particularly devastating for mothers and their children in the region. Doctors and nurses were among the first to get sick, and many died as they cared for Ebola patients, unaware of the risks posed by tending to the ill. Without proper infection control, health care facilities became hot-beds for the virus – viewed by the community as places where the sick went to die and the healthy became sick. This perception led women to believe that delivering their babies at home was safer than delivering at a clinic — an immeasurable setback in fighting the region’s stubbornly high maternal and infant mortality rates.

Before the Ebola epidemic, 1 in 17 women could expect to die during childbirth during her lifetime – a risk already far too high. After the epidemic, that risk is predicted to rise precipitously. The World Bank estimates that maternal mortality could increase by 38 percent in Guinea, 74 percent in Sierra Leone, and 111 percent in Liberia due to the loss of health care professionals and the deterioration of the health care system caused by the outbreak. In human terms, this would mean an additional 4,000 women dying each year in childbirth. The vast majority of these deaths could be prevented with basic care.

Last year, I visited Sierra Leone with International Medical Corps to better understand how Ebola had hurt expectant moms – or belly women, as they’re affectionately known in the region — and why the epidemic continued to ravage maternal and child health long after it had been contained and ultimately ended

You may not have heard of International Medical Corps, but you’ve seen them in action at the front line of the Ebola epidemic, the first responders to this and so many other epidemics and disasters and conflicts over the past 30 plus years. As the humanitarian health care heroes at International Medical Corps cared for hundreds of patients at Ebola treatment facilities, they also trained hundreds of local health care professionals in a new standard of infection prevention and control and gave local hospitals and clinics the tools that they needed to get back to work safely – not only during the epidemic, but in the months and years to come. To help make health care in Sierra Leone – including maternal health care — well again.

The Western Union Foundation was among the first supporters that stepped forward to join International Medical Corps in the fight against Ebola. Their generous support not only helped care for Ebola patients, but by equipping Sierra Leone’s health care system to once again care for mothers and babies, it kept this epidemic from triggering yet another wave of tragic and preventable deaths.

At the heart of this vital initiative from the International Medical Corps, this was a training facility beside their Ebola Treatment Center in Lunsar, a town in northern Sierra Leone, where, with the support of the Western Union Foundation and other donors, International Medical Corps trained 50 midwives and other maternal health professionals in the latest best practices in childbirth and how to care for pregnant moms and babies without putting themselves at risk of Ebola.

I was lucky enough to sit in on one of these incredible trainings last year, where International Medical Corps staff worked with approximately 20 maternal health workers from across Sierra Leone on how to help pregnant Ebola survivors. I also had a chance to hug each of these passionate, inspiring women and talk to them about their life’s work of saving lives.

One was Susana Sia Lebbie, who worked in a very remote corner of Sierra Leone as a maternal and child health aide. She told me one of the biggest challenges of her job was to convince women to deliver in a health facility and seek care. Not surprised, I asked her how she earned their trust and she replied, “You talk to them and when they come to your clinic, you treat them like sisters, daughters, and even brothers.”

I often say that motherhood is the ultimate sisterhood. Susana is the ultimate embodiment of this philosophy, caring for other women as her sisters, their children as her own. The impact that Susana and her colleagues have every day on Sierra Leone’s communities – their communities – is remarkable. They are the ones working tirelessly on the front lines to save the lives of moms and babies and restore community faith in the health systems.

As Susana explained to me, her work has a powerful and beautiful butterfly effect. If one mother has a good experience delivering in a health care facility, she and her family will likely encourage other moms in her community to do the same. One mom will tell another mom, who will tell another mom, and this incremental change, spread through word of mom, from family to family, community to community, is what will ultimately reduce maternal and infant deaths in Sierra Leone – helping Susana’s sisters, and ours, have healthier pregnancies, safer deliveries, and healthier babies.

Ebola may be over, but the country’s maternal and child health crisis is not. As we move on from Ebola, we must not leave Sierra Leone’s mothers and babies behind.

International Medical Corps (IMC) is an NGO that collaborates with the Western Union Foundation to provide disaster relief, healthcare training and development programs for underserved communities and those struggling to recover from catastrophic events across the globe. Every September, IMC and other partners – including the What to Expect Foundation – host #BumpDay to raise awareness about the need for maternal healthcare worldwide. This year, What to Expect’s Heidi Murkoff wrote about her experience in Sierra Leone, where funding from the Western Union Foundation helped IMC develop a training facility and curriculum to protect maternal healthcare professionals against Ebola. You can be a part of #BumpDay on September 13 by posting a picture of your current or former baby bump on social media with the #BumpDay hashtag, signing up to be an advocate for maternal healthcare or donating to IMC. Click here to learn more.

Heidi Murkoff is the author of the best-selling pregnancy book of all time, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. In partnership with International Medical Corps, her What to Expect Foundation established the Healthy Birth Project to create one million more healthier pregnancies worldwide. To support the Project, What to Expect and International Medical Corps launched #BumpDay (September 13) to raise awareness about the continued needs of moms and babies globally – asking individuals to share pictures of their current or former baby bumps. Please visit bumpday.org to learn more and see how you can get involved.

The Western Union Foundation is a separate charitable corporation that is tax-exempt under §501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code contributions to which are tax-deductible for US income tax purposes. The Foundation receives support from the Western Union Company, its employees, agents and business partners. The Foundation funds efforts to enable economic opportunity through education for underserved populations and provides humanitarian relief to communities in crisis.


Photo Credit: International Medical Corps