Dec 4th, 2014, 12:02 AM

Alumni Treating Ebola Calls for the Side of Science and Not Fear

By Marc Feustel
Picking up first patients. Image Credit: International Medical Corps/Stuart J. Sia
Written by Gabriel Hedengren

When the world calls, when there is a crisis somewhere, AUP alumni Sean Casey is the first to go. This was highlighted by University President Celeste Schenck  during her state of the union speech, and it is hard to disagree. As the director of an Ebola Emergency Response Team for the International Medical Corps in Monrovia, Liberia, Casey and his clinic have been doing crucial life-saving work on the ground, something which has lead to his clinic being on the front page of the International New York Times on more than one occasion, and got him on CNN where he was interviewed by Anderson Cooper.

CNN Anderson Cooper: Staying safe on Ebola's frontlines

The outbreak of the Ebola virus in Western Africa is one of the most grave, and certainly most publicized, humanitarian crises of recent years and has at this point killed over 5,000 people worldwide, the majority of them being in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The outbreak began to spread December of last year and intensified during the summer when the death toll exponentially increased.  Two people have died of the disease on American soil, provoking an avalanche of media attention around the epidemic.

Since his graduation from AUP ten years ago, Casey, born and raised in Pennsylvania, has plunged himself into the world’s most troubled zones. He’s fought cholera in Haiti, H.I.V./AIDS in Rwanda, worked at refugee camps in South Sudan, safe-housed homosexuals in Iraq, and overseen child soldier rehabilitation in Sri Lanka to name just a few.
It was during a well-deserved vacation in Thailand in early August that he got the call. The International Medical Corps, one of the world’s largest nonprofit humanitarian organizations for whom Casey has been working since 2011, wanted to fly him to Monrovia, Liberia to help organize the fight against Ebola on the ground. Since then his clinic has been successful, with none of its workers contracting the disease. It holds 70 beds, usually treating 30 at any time, and admitted patients have a survival rate of 50%, a relatively good number for a virus without a cure.

Casey says that their work focuses on three points. First, they have to collect patients from their houses and communities, something which is hard as their single clinic covers a huge geographical area. It can take 4-5 hours for just one patient to arrive. Then they have to provide supportive care for the patients. In the lack of an immediate cure, all that can be done is pain alleviation and intravenous therapy. Finally the clinic has to tend to their worker’s safety by following a strict set of procedures to avoid contamination.

A lot has changed since his arrival in August. As I talked to him over a spotty phone connection he described the grimness, “There were bodies in the streets. Ambulances were running up and down the streets but had nowhere to take the bodies.” No one would shake hands or touch, and still don’t, as the population has learned to understand, respect and fear the disease. Conditions are improving however, or at least Casey describes the situation as more “controlled,” telling me everyone is surprised by how much has been achieved with relatively few means.

Money is no longer an issue since the outbreak grabbed tremendous media attention from around the world. What Casey lacks are human resources; water and sanitation specialists are in especially high demand. It has been a challenge to get human resources to the affected areas from the outside. The expansive fear of the disease has undermined the response because people are scared of contracting it. “Most Americans working here won’t be going home for Christmas due to the fear of being quarantined,” explains Casey, who believes that Western media has done a poor job when reporting about the outbreak. “The reaction has been overblown. There have been a couple of people infected (in the US), and they have been contained and have survived. The only deaths are due to the failure to adhere to security measures,” he says, referring to the attention brought to the disease when a contracted individual died on American soil.

This widespread fear of Ebola was accentuated when President Schenck planned to invite Casey to speak at her state of the union address. She eventually had to ask him not to come to the university grounds due to a fear that it would, “divide the community against itself,” to have someone present who’d just left an Ebola treatment unit. Casey’s response to being banned from his former university was anger and frustration. “A university of all places should focus on the facts and not on fear. I understand why people panic, but AUP should stand on the side of science and not on that of fear-mongering,” he says. He still appreciated how the President handled the situation, which he describes as, “telling people with irrational fear not to worry.”

Though might have been upsetting, the retracted invitation will not be stopping Casey from continuing his important work of fighting Ebola on the ground. A group of students have recently set up a campaign calling for donations to Casey’s treatment unit