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At the Frontlines of an Epidemic: Combating Ebola in Liberia

January 29, 2015
MHRP's CDR Jennifer malia joined the military's efforts to combat the ebola outbreak in Liberia.

Last fall, CDR Jennifer Malia, DrPH, MHRP’s Assistant Chief of the Department of Laboratory Diagnostics and Monitoring, jumped at the opportunity to deploy to Liberia and treat Ebola patients. Malia spent more than a month in Monrovia, setting up a dedicated Ebola Treatment Center for health care workers and running a laboratory.

When the Public Health Service’s Chief Medical Officer for her deployment approached Jennifer Malia about the chance to join the military’s team of first responders to treat Ebola in Liberia, Malia didn’t hesitate to give her answer.

“I said, ‘yes,’ right away,” she says. “It was scary, but it was an opportunity to be on the ground and making an impact.”
After nearly a decade of experience with MHRP setting up and managing HIV laboratories in Africa, Malia said she felt confident in her ability to get the facility off the ground. But she had some difficulty assuring her family of her safety.

“I told my kids, ‘This Ebola outbreak – getting it under control and helping people survive – depends on the labs,” she said. “I told them, ‘Mommy can do this.’”

After a week of safety training at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Malia was deployed to Liberia as a part of the first wave of US troops sent to carry out President Obama’s directive to set up clinics to combat the virus.

At the time of her deployment, Liberia was climbing toward the peak of its Ebola outbreak. According to the WHO, more than 200 cases were reported each week with transmission spreading rapidly in the country’s dense capital of Monrovia.

As a member of the Public Heath Services’ “Team One,” Malia and her colleagues set up Monrovia’s first Ebola treatment unit (ETU) in less than 10 days and immediately began admitting and treating patients.

“We were the first people on the ground and our mission was to see and treat Ebola infected health care workers,” Malia said.

“We were the only team with that directive and part of the President’s plan was to assure health care workers that if, God forbid, you had an Ebola exposure risk, there would be a facility that had the capability to run tests, medevac you, if necessary, and provide you with the best level of care possible.”

Although Malia didn’t treat patients, she spent most of her time in “the hotzone,” collecting and testing samples and transporting blood draws to the local USAMRID lab to run Ebola PCR.

For more than a century, the US military medical community has solved many significant international health problems, particularly in the area of tropical infectious diseases. This research expertise, along with an international clinical trials infrastructure, is being leveraged to help in the US Government’s response the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Throughout her deployment, Malia said the clinic lost two patients and discharged four. Through it all, she was moved by the sense of community that held Monrovians together, despite a disease that made it impossible to have physical contact.
“The patients we saw were health care workers first. As they got better, they would take care of the sicker patients on the ward with them and they all planned to go back to work at other ETUs after they recovered,” she said.

“People lived and they left, and they went back to work. It was truly a unique and emotional experience.”