The Infectious World
by Ezinwanneamaka Morayo Ejiofor, MSII
I woke up in Grenada with red eyes, convinced I had Ebola. I felt that I might die and not only die alone, but be remembered as ‘the girl who brought Ebola to Grenada.' I had fallen asleep under my mosquito net, uninformed and ignorant because Chikungunya is transmitted by a diurnal vector, not a nocturnal one. That night, I closed my eyes wondering whether I would wake up in heaven after 19 years on Earth.
Just months before, I had made my journey back home to Nigeria. Relaxed in my family house, I did nothing for days, taking in the sounds of splashing pellets as water dropped on the concrete like an unknown yet beautiful and mystical noise.
Then, it was on the news. Like daggers to our ears: Ebola was in my city, Lagos.
We were all terrified of the news. I was a premedical student then and my mind raced toward the future, wondering whether I would be prepared to handle the situation as a future physician. I daydreamed myself to the front lines of the war, ready to battle, contemplating if I would be allowed home after a day working with the infected. Was I willing to sacrifice close contact with my family for the service of others?
My mother and I became suspicious of everyone. The memories are so distant now although it was only two years ago, but we avoided the hairdresser who came in contact with many for fear of transmission. The Sign of Peace and some Holy Communion practices were halted in churches. Should we go to the market? Should we buy Boli (roasted plantains)? Should we buy roadside roasted / boiled corn and ube (local pear)?
Our beautiful city. A tiny virus plaguing us, the giants.
We later decided that we had to live our lives, though carefully. Whatever that meant.
A market-woman asked my mum how to prevent being infected with Ebola. She and many others could not read and were unsure of the conflicting information they were receiving. As a joke, someone actually posted on Twitter that bathing with salt water would prevent Ebola. It was an extremely dangerous joke but many believed it! Fortunately, this lady looked up to my mother as an educated woman. My mother advised her in Yoruba about the standard measures promoted by the media to prevent infection. "Make sure the soap lathers," I recall my mum telling her, instructing on proper hand-washing; a basic but effective prevention strategy.
Hand sanitizers were gone from the supermarket. People rushed to buy whatever might be their saving grace. The cashier, wearing a surgical face mask, had been using the same gloves all day long – they were torn. He touched his face with the gloves. We informed him that if he had come in contact with the virus, he would be contaminated by now.
All over the news, there were warnings. Ways to prevent spread and contain the virus. Luckily, the scale was quite small. The index case had been identified quickly and the virus had presented in Lagos, a booming African mega-city with the technology, resources, and competent, informed health workforce necessary to contain the drastic situation.
Fortunately, the virus, brought to us politely packaged in a visitor from a nearby country, was quickly eliminated. We all raised our voices and sighed deeply in relief with strongly religious overtones, "Thank God!"
Even so, on my journey back to school, I had to pass through Immigration in the US. I had been feeling a bit sick, with a little coughing and sneezing here and there, but as I approached, I remembered the warning my mother had given me: "Don't cough when you get to America. They will detain you."
To those that have died in the battle against Ebola, especially Dr. Stella Ameyo Adadevoh, I salute you! Your passion for your duty is inspirational. No amount of thanks can equate the millions of lives you saved, only to sacrifice your own. To those who became infected, both those who died and those who survived, I salute you as well.
Months later, during my Community Health class, I proudly corrected my instructor by informing him, "Nigeria is the only country to have successfully eliminated Ebola."
Still, someone advised my friend and I not to return home for Christmas for fear of contagion.
"There are cases of Ebola in the US right now and none in Nigeria," I remember responding. "Where would you rather go?"
During my time in Grenada, it had become my custom to slather an unhealthy amount of mosquito repellant cream on my arms and legs. The smell disgusted me but it was a primary prevention method. Yet, there were no guarantees. I have friends who have contracted the Chikungunya virus. A next door neighbor who had complained of a rash and joint pain had been told that the symptoms could last for years. I hoped to avoid a similar Chikungunya destiny armed with nothing more than mosquito repellent cream from India.
Now, there's a new threat: the Zika virus.
At times like this, I am overwhelmed by immense thoughts. Culture and access to resources play such a pivotal role in health: Where do you live? Is it urban or rural? What are your customs on hand-washing, meat-eating, animal hunting, care for the dead? I am in awe to think that we can navigate the skies, travel to space, surmount all manner of giants in the visible world but it is the tiny pieces of the invisible world that are often the most dangerous.
The workforce awaits me. I tie my boot straps, do my sit-ups, and jump my hurdles in preparation for selfless service to the infectious world.
Supplemental Note from the author: "I have been a creative writer and lover of literature since childhood. I was inspired to write this story while reading a microbiology journal article about Ebola. I realized that I had a peculiar encounter with the virus and decided to share my experience."