“Death is the biggest motivator for people to work together,” Lieutenant Colonel Ross L. Lightsey, Sr., of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, Joint Force Command, told the audience gathered January 26 at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice.
LTC Lightsey, in a videoconference live from Monrovia, Liberia, briefed the SLU public health community on the U.S. Army’s mission responding to the Ebola epidemic and the challenges of working within the complex environment of a massive international response to an unprecedented public health crisis.
“Too often, people only think of the military in terms of fighting an enemy using guns and bombs; however, the military plays a huge role in providing humanitarian assistance around the globe,” said Dr. Alexander Garza, associate dean for public health practice at SLU. “I was happy that the students were able to see the military in a different light and how we intersect with public health.” Dr. Garza, who serves in the U.S. Army Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel and the Command Surgeon for the 352nd Civil Affairs Command, met LTC Lightsey as the 101st was planning its mission to Liberia.
The U.S. Army was just one of the many “boots on the ground” at the National Ebola Operation Center, working in collaboration with the World Bank, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, CDC, Disaster Assistance Response Team, the African Union, the European Union, among others.
Of his nine deployments, LTC Lightsey says he has seen “the most cooperation and collaboration” between international entities in the fight against Ebola.
The discussion proved timely, as Liberia’s Ebola task force reports the country could be free of the virus in early February. LTC Lightsey was joined by representatives of different U.S. governmental agencies in discussing the multi-pronged approach used to combat the spread of the virus. Together, this group offered insights on training health care workers, building Ebola Treatment Units, and overcoming cultural differences, both on the ground and in government leadership.
“Half the battle is teaching [health care workers] how to take care of themselves,” the chief nurse in charge of training said, adding that the “doffing station” was “the most critical piece of the whole training because the most likely place for them to contaminate themselves is when they’re taking off that equipment.”
Liberia presented unique challenges to the mission, including a lack of communication infrastructure and large swaths of rural, impassable land, LTC Lightsey noted. The operation relied on social mobilization to stem the transmission of Ebola that was occurring as part of a cultural burial practice.
During the Q&A session, LTC Lightsey offered insight on the possibility of isolating the country to prevent its spread. “You have to think of the second and third order effects of closing off a country,” he said, referring to the economic and social damage it would cause. “You want some flow in and out of the country. You want doctors and businessmen to travel. You want to create a ‘sense of normalcy’.”