In early September 2014, David Blackley, was on vacation in the mountains of North Carolina, when his phone rang. Blackley, who works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had applied earlier in the year for a deployment to help with the growing Ebola crisis in West African nations such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The call was to see if he still wanted the deployment.
“I talked with my colleagues and family members and decided it was something I wanted to do,” says Blackley, a 2006 graduate of NC State. Blackley is in the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), a two-year postgraduate program designed to give its employees on-the-job learning. Blackley was assigned to Liberia, which, by September, had seen Ebola outbreaks spread uncontrollably across its borders.
Blackley says he didn’t expect the call. But once he knew his application had been accepted, it was an opportunity he couldn’t say no to. “Your heart starts beating a little faster when you find out. I basically had to go ahead and pack my bags, because I really only had a week until my flight,” he says.
Ebola outbreaks started in West Africa during the early months of 2014, with the number of suspected cases and confirmed cases quickly reaching historic levels.
After a weeklong period of training and briefing, Blackley gathered medical supplies, packed his bags and boarded a plane for Liberia. When the plane touched down, Blackley immediately saw what his friends and colleagues, many of whom had already been in Liberia, had warned him about.
“You get off the plane, it’s hot, and transportation is extremely difficult,” says Blackley. “The health infrastructure is almost on the point of collapsing.”
Blackley’s job over the course of his five-week stay in Liberia consisted of mainly two things: case finding and contact tracing. Case finding, according to Blackley, is locating potential cases – a process that he says is incredibly difficult – and evaluating symptoms.
Contact tracing is just that: tracing. Once someone is deemed infected, field physicians like Blackley try to ascertain who, or what, the infected person has come into contact with. And in a country with a relatively weak infrastructure, Blackley says that process was often ineffective.
“Sometimes, the highly infectious people would have to walk for miles, transported by canoe, and then have to walk more to be taken by ambulance,” Blackley says. If people were lucky enough to live near a field hospital – a type of makeshift hospital designed for these type of emergencies – then Blackley says they could be transported and given the proper treatment.
Unfortunately in Liberia, that’s rarely the case.
“The hardest thing was knowing that if that person was diagnosed somewhere else, they could get treatment much quicker,” says Blackley.
— Will Watkins