An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote from Richard F. Wilson, chairman of Mercer University’s Christianity department, to Lake Lambert, dean of Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts. A corrected version is below.
A Mercer University professor is right in the middle of the Ebola crisis that’s engulfing three West African countries.
Richard F. Wilson, chairman of Mercer’s Christianity department, arrived Wednesday in Liberia to resume his duties as president of the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary in Paynesville City. Between the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and bad weather, it took him three days to get to the country after flying out of Atlanta.
Now, he’s caught in what’s being described as the worst recorded Ebola outbreak in history.
Because of the crisis, Liberia has now closed its borders and closed all schools indefinitely, something that was happening just as Wilson was returning to his post. So far, no one associated with the school, including the students and staff who live there, have contracted the virus.
Wilson said the government is trying to educate the public on safety practices, including washing their hands in chlorine water every time they enter a public place, such as a market. In addition, even with Africa’s temperate conditions, the government is asking Liberians to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants because the virus can be transmitted through sweat, as well as direct contact with other bodily fluids such as blood or saliva.
Wilson said he went to a market Wednesday for food and didn’t buy any fresh meat or vegetables, only frozen, to reduce the risk of contracting Ebola. In addition, he’s been conducting all of his business by phone or email. If he has to talk with someone in person, he does so through a screen or a gate. And if someone has to enter his residence, that person must wash with chlorine water and sit on the opposite side of the room.
“That’s non-negotiable,” he said by phone from Liberia on Thursday.
Wilson is no stranger to disease in Africa. He contracted malaria in 2012 during a different visit to Liberia. The death rate among West Africans who have contracted Ebola is about 60 percent, he said, and once people contract it, they die within two weeks. There are no licensed drugs or vaccines for it.
“It’s the world’s deadliest virus,” said Wilson, who has served as the school’s president since January. “It’s most similar to HIV in that it’s only transmitted through bodily fluids. ... I’ve known about it since March, but in the past week, circumstances have gotten so much worse.”
People who contract the virus usually develop blisters that burst, causing them to bleed externally. Since Liberia is a very social country in which neighbors and friends often help prepare a body for burial, the disease can spread quickly, Wilson said. Also, many Liberians also have a distrust of white Western medical workers.
Wilson said three early indicators of Ebola are fever, vomiting and diarrhea. However, because those symptoms are common to other illnesses, Liberians who have the conditions often don’t realize they have Ebola.
Not identifying the disease or seeking treatment can be critical, Wilson said, because early treatment could mean a 30 percent chance of survival -- not great odds, to be sure, but better than the zero percent chance once the virus progresses.
TRYING TO GET HOME
As if the virus weren’t enough to contend with, looting or potential riots are also of concern.
“We are afraid that the crisis could lead to civil unrest,” Wilson said. “If, for example, Monrovia has to shut down, there could be a water and food shortage that could light a fuse, so to say.”
Because of the school closures, Wilson said he hopes to return stateside within the next 10 days, but travel is becoming increasingly difficult. Delta announced Thursday that it’s ceasing air service to West Africa until the crisis abates, and there are only three other airlines, Brussels Airlines, British Airways and Air France, that fly to Liberia.
In addition, U.S. health officials warned Americans on Thursday not to travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where the virus has already killed collectively more than 700 people this year, according to news reports.
While the risk of Ebola coming to America is relatively small, the travel warning is the most significant issued since a SARS outbreak in Asia in 2003.
Wilson said he’s eager to return home to assuage the concerns of his family and friends, including his wife, Lucy, who have been worrying about him ever since he left.
“It’s been one big crisis for my family,” he said. “I want to get out before the airlines quit serving Liberia.”
Wilson said the World Health Organization won’t declare a health crisis over until a country goes 42 consecutive days without a new case being reported.
Mercer officials said Thursday said they are fully supportive of Wilson and leave his travel plans up to his own judgment.
“The significance of the outbreak in Liberia wasn’t known when he left,” said Lake Lambert, dean of Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts. “I understand that he’s supposed to get out next week. That’s what we’re hopeful for. The conditions even before the Ebola breakout were not luxurious. He’s made sacrifices to work there, and we’re very proud of him.”
Lambert said though the school has sent students to Liberia on mission trips in the past, it didn’t do so last year and there are no plans to have a mission there in 2015. Lambert said Mercer does have a few West African students attending college.
The current crisis hasn’t scared Wilson off from returning to Liberia. Once the school reopens, he plans to resume his work.
“When schools are allowed to reopen I hope to return to Liberia and continue what we have begun,” he said. “We have made significant progress since January. Indeed, I believe that we are poised to experience new and big things that will make the seminary more secure than it has been since before Liberia’s civil war” from 1989 to 2003.
“What is most sad for me is that Ebola has put us on pause,” he said. “I hope we don’t lose our momentum as we move toward a better day.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.