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Utah doctor wants Americans to remember Ebola-stricken West Africa

SALT LAKE CITY — The Ebola outbreak is still very much a concern in West Africa, even if it might have lost steam in the mainstream American media.

Dr. Angela Dunn, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is currently stationed in Utah, recently spent time in Sierra Leone, the country hardest hit with the infectious illness. Dunn shared her experience at the Utah Department of Health on Thursday.

She said that while Ebola is a problem, "it is not the problem."

Dunn said the country and region of Africa suffers from a lack of infrastructure, partly due to the timing of the disease, but mostly due to a lengthy civil war that left much of the area in destruction.

"Here, we take so much of this for granted," she said, adding that during the ongoing spread of measles, it has been difficult to get Utahns to agree to quarantine themselves. "And they have running water, television and the Internet, among other things to keep them comfortable."

The spread of Ebola, which began in December 2013, reached a low point in January, with fewer than 100 new cases popping up, which meant things were getting under control, Dunn said. But in the first week of February, it peaked again, leaving health workers feeling daunted.

"We are still getting surprises," she said.

Arriving in the country in October, Dunn said she felt like "such a small piece in a much bigger puzzle" but was ultimately instrumental in teaching local health workers how to identify and prevent the spread of Ebola.

Contact tracing, or identifying anyone with whom an infected person might have come in contact, she said, "is the key to stopping the outbreak," but it is difficult, given the rural conditions and government mistrust in Sierra Leone.

Oftentimes, the daily trips to check on someone required hiking miles or crossing a river or two, making it cumbersome and inefficient. People are also reluctant to give information to volunteers they believed worked for the government.

"People there are scared," Dunn said. "They don't know what happens to their family members who are taken away once they are believed to have Ebola. They don't always come back."

The meager treatment centers are not conveniently located, she said, and "are more like prisons than health care facilities." There is no electricity at night and disease tracking is also done via pen and paper, without Internet service in every town.

In addition to the deaths caused by the disease, Dunn said, the country still has yet to face some of the worst consequences of rampant spread, including economic strife, impending famine, industry issues and health care complications, as all care is being diverted to the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

Though many are dying, the world has never seen such a large outbreak of Ebola and it has afforded and will afford much research and provide answers to many questions about the disease, Dunn said. She just hopes that people wouldn't be so quick to forget.

"There has been a lot of outpouring recently," she said. "But they need more. Much more in the form of human resources. It's still a huge situation there. We need to keep it in the forefront of our thoughts, and not just Ebola but the true problems of Ebola."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards