With no new cases to report in the past few days, the dust seems to be gradually settling around the ebola virus scare which literally rocked the nation in the month of April. This could not have been achieved without the effective response of Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and other national and international stakeholders; as well as the immense support received from friendly nations such as the United States and the People’s Republic of China. For the good health we continue to enjoy, every Liberian owes you great debt of gratitude.
Although service providers continue to wear their gloves in various businesses and individuals continue to use hand sanitizers after every handshake, one can safely say, that if nothing at all, the ebola threat clearly reawakened Liberians to increased hygiene and personal responsibility.
Looking back, we realize that throughout the entire month’s episode, health care workers were at the forefront of it all: attending to patients, following up on supposed rumors, assisting in efforts to quarantine suspected cases, collecting blood samples for analysis, raising awareness, etc. In an effort to contain the situation, this close range contact exposed health care workers to disease risks several hundred times more pronounced than that of the average citizen. Just think about it. The nurse on duty at the time could have been your mother. The doctor could have been your uncle. The physician assistant could have been your friend. But yet, their health and safety was continuously placed in clear and present danger, all in an effort to perform their sacred duty of preserving the sanctity of human life-yours and mine.
While health care workers, by virtue of training, are generally the most cautious of all professionals, religiously wearing gloves and appropriate protective clothing as well as washing their hands before and after attending to patients, in general, people’s exposure to communicable diseases, harmful substances or high risk environments tend to be directly proportional to their occupation. For lifetime miners, it’s susceptibility to some forms of cancer, for farmers using pesticides, it’s possible respiratory distress, for construction workers, it’s injuries and falls and for health care workers, as we saw in the ebola outbreak in neighboring Guinea in which many medics contracted the disease and lost their lives, it was increased risk of exposure to a deadly communicable disease.
As we revisit the drawing board and attempt to extract the lessons learnt and perhaps define the way forward following such a drastic disease scare, the often forgotten field of environmental and occupational health demands a careful revisit. According to the National Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, “The Government of Liberia is legally obliged and committed to ensuring a healthy and safe working environment for all employees in both the public and private sectors of Liberia. How we ensure the health and safety of Liberia’s recovering workforce across all sectors of society is crucial.
The case of the recent ebola threat is just a resounding reminder of just how interconnected our lives really are and a reflection of just how susceptible we each are to the workplace exposures of our loved ones. Most importantly, it is reawakening to the consciousness that in the fragile national public health puzzle, we too, as employers or employees, decision makers or advocates, policy formulators or enforcers, young or old, rich or poor, male or female, play major roles by the things we do or fail to in our individual lives as well as in the workplace.
So, before we close this rather dramatic chapter and move on to other more appealing ventures, as is so common in the face of victory, let’s be reminded dear reader, that the recent ebola threat along with the many other workplace hazards we each encounter each day—potential fire incidences, falls and strains, injuries and fractures from handling heavy duty equipment, exposure to communicable diseases, possible cancer risks from handling harmful substances—are just more reasons why environmental and occupational health must be revisited and prioritized.
Author’s affiliation: M. Sc., Environmental Health-Harvard School of Public Health, Cyprus International Institute B. Sc. Zoology, emphasis Public Health-University of Ghana-Legon, 2012 Harvard Cyprus Program Fellow