The story of UNMIL [Book]: Ebola’s impact on UN staff

UNMIL Security guards checking the body temperature of UNMIL staff entering the UNMIL Headquarters. Photo: UNMIL

23 Apr 2018

The story of UNMIL [Book]: Ebola’s impact on UN staff

During the Ebola crisis, four UNMIL staff members were infected, of whom two eventually succumbed to the disease.

The infection of an UNMIL member required three actions: first, ensuring that the individual received the best possible care; second, ensuring that other personnel were not infected and third; protecting the public in Liberia and beyond.

Here is one example: late on 23 December 2014, UNMIL was informed that one of its staff members was unwell and being treated at a local hospital. The UNMIL Chief Medical Officer ordered the staff  member transported to the Mission’s holding facility, where he tested positive for Ebola. He was then admitted to an Ebola treatment unit run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Monrovia.The Mission tried to get him transferred to the Monrovia Medical Unit (MMU), most advanced Ebola treatment unit in the country, established by the US Government to treat Liberian medical personnel and international staff. The Mission also began investigating how to send him out of the country for treatment, which entailed securing suitable aircraft that could transport a highly infectious person.

In parallel, the Mission began identifying all of the individuals with whom the staff member had had contact over the past week. He had visited an UNMIL medical clinic seeking treatment for malaria, which had effectively masked his Ebola symptoms. He had also visited several offices.

The Mission tracked everyone with whom he may have had contact, including passengers on the same shuttle bus. UNMIL quarantined 22 individuals. To ensure that the disease was not spread outside Liberia, the Medical Section worked with the Travel Unit identified 27 individuals who did not require immediate quarantine, but should not be allowed to travel. Finally, UNMIL arranged for the staff member’s residence to be disinfected and to ensure proper coordination with national counterparts to prevent the spread of the disease. As a result, no other UNMIL personnel were infected, nor it appeared, was anyone else in his community.

But the story did not end there, as the staff member was not improving. The US MMU was dedicated to medical personnel only. To send him outside the country was also problematic because he had taken his passport with him to the MSF unit, where it would be destroyed along with all of his possessions. Numerous phone calls from the UNMIL Chief of Staff’s office eventually convinced MSF to agree to locate and treat the passport and, if possible, return it.

When the passport arrived in a sealed Ziploc bag, recalled Douglass Hansen, now special assistant to the UNMIL Head of Mission, “It was impossible to avoid the natural, if irrational, fear that opening the bag and processing the passport would have drastic consequences for me. Handling a passport from an Ebola unit awakened a primal apprehension that MSF’s assurances of decontamination could only partially appease. I will never forget the moment I sat and flipped through an object that had been potentially contaminated with Ebola, to hold in my hands something that people across the world were in abject fear of. In addition, I knew that the staff member had been in the room next to my office a few days earlier. The stigma of Ebola became clear in that moment. And despite my explanations, several family members refused to see me for months after that.”

Eventually, the staff member was admitted to the US MMU through the Mission’s good offices intervention, where he received intravenous trea