Alexandria Berg, daughter of Tammie Jo Berg and Bill Berg, and a graduate of Iola-Scandinavia High School, shares her experiences in Sierra Leone in west Africa.
Currently pursuing her master’s degree in public health (MPH) at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Berg traveled to Africa to fulfill a practical field experience.
“A requirement for all candidates in the MPH program is to fulfill a preceptorship, or a practical field experience,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to make my preceptorship an international experience.”
Berg decided to go to Sierra Leone and work with the non-profit organization called West African Medical Missions (WAMM).
“I was supposed to be in Sierra Leone for 10-11 weeks in order to complete the 400 hours required for our graduate,” she said. “I left on July 8, 2014.”
Berg was not expected to return home until late September, but her trip was cut short, due to the outbreak of Ebola in the country.
After the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Sierra Leone, UW-La Crosse followed protocol and requested that Berg leave the country as soon as possible.
“I was devastated to have to leave,” she said. “The friends and connections I have made, the projects I was working on and the country I had fell in love with.”
Considered a global health officer with WAMM, Berg’s primary involvement was a program called the Young Scholars Program (YSP).
“I worked beside young adults and youth who have completed YSP and have chosen to continue their involvement with WAMM to be program assistants and administrators.”
According to Berg, everyone involved with the YSP dedicates their time to teaching and educating participants on the health sciences, biology, anatomy, immunology, diseases common to Sierra Leone and social determinants of health of those diseases.
“This teaching trains and empowers the students to become knowledgeable, confident leaders, and act as community health advocates,” Berg said. “Upon completion of the program, the students go into communities and create unique, innovative ways to sensitize communities and people, conduct needs assessments, and/or educate them with correct health information.”
Outreach projects have included education on maternal and child health, safe sex practices, mental health and decreasing stigma associated with those who suffer from a mental illness and currently infectious disease control management.
“Given the situation and ongoing events of the Ebola outbreak in their country, and West Africa in general, these student’s actions are so critical and are making great strides in combating the spread of misinformation and stigma that has been hovering and suffocating Sierra Leone,” Berg said.
WAMM, volunteers, local youth, YSp alumni and current youth are currently engaged in a number of projects to aid in the battle against the spread of Ebola.
“They are acting to combat the spreading of Ebola, increase patient flow into health care facilities and decrease the stigma of health care workers which ultimately causes sick people to not go and get treated, and therefore not survive,” she said.
By educating and empowering the local youth and empowering communities, WAMM is shifting their homes, communities and country, one small step at a time.
“The work that they do is so crucial and valuable to those in the organization, participating in the programs and to those they reach in the communities,” Berg said. “The work that they are currently doing amongst the Ebola outbreak is so critical and they are truly making a difference.”
Dealing with one of the largest Ebola outbreaks the country has ever seen, Berg never had any fears for her own health.
“To contract Ebola, there needs to be close or intimate contact between you and a symptomatic infected person,” said Berg. “I was never in a hospital or clinical setting, caring for or around sick persons, so I never really felt like my personal health was at risk.”
Berg noted that friends and family did have some anxiety.
“I know that this caused some worry for a few people,” she said. “There seemed to be misinformation and misunderstanding of how the Ebola virus is spread, therefore creating fear and worry from loved ones and friends back home.”
WAMM did face some other challenges as the Ebola outbreak continued to transpire.
“These challenges often came in the form of newly formed policy and restrictions made by the local government,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges faced is from the effects of fear, misinformation and the overall stigma of the disease.
“There were plenty of misconceptions about the Ebola virus,” said Berg. “What it is, how it is spread, how easily you can contract it, the signs and symptoms of it, and how safe it is to travel in and around the country.”
Rumors surfaced that you should not shake hands, wear short sleeves, or take public transportation, because doing all these could possible put you at risk for contracting the virus.
“This is something very difficult and frightening to hear,” Berg said. “Telling locals not to shake hands with others is like telling Americans not to eat turkey or ham at Thanksgiving. It’s part of their culture to greet people with a handshake.”
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention information, Ebola is spread through direct contact, through broken skin or mucous membranes in, the eyes, nose, or mouth by blood or body fluids including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen of a person who is sick with Ebola.
Additionally, risks come from objects such as needles and syringes that have been contaminated with the virus or infected fruit bats or primates.
Ebola is not spread through the air or by water, or in general, by food.
There is no evidence that mosquitoes or other insects can transmit Ebola virus.
Health care providers caring for Ebola patients and the family and friends in close contact with Ebola patients are at the highest risk of getting sick because they may come in contact with infected blood or body fluids of sick patients.
“Sierra Leone is in great need of personnel and qualified health professionals,” Berg said. “I believe that if you or anyone you know is qualified, you should truly and sincerely consider going.”
She believes we can help stop the spread of the Ebola virus from spreading in our own country.
“To do that, we need to help control the spread of the virus in West Africa,” said Berg. “If we can help control it in West Africa, we can prevent it from reaching our backyards.”