written by Christopher Johnson, Staff, Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF)

On Thursday, October 30, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global AIDS organization, and Holman United Methodist Church hosted a panel discussion and community forum on the global response to Ebola, the deadly virus that has claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 people in West Africa since March – and with three confirmed cases in the U.S., exposed significant shortcomings in the government and private hospitals’ public health response.

“Here we find ourselves again in the midst of another health challenge surrounded by a lot of hysteria, anxiety, stigma and discrimination – just like HIV/AIDS,” said Rev. Kelvin Sauls, pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, in opening remarks to the crowd assembled in the church’s L.L. White Hall. “It is important for us as people of faith to always make sure that we facilitate space and place where we can come together to have constructive conversation and informative discussion around current events such as Ebola. We are grateful that we are able to partner with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We gather tonight to stand in solidarity with those who have been infected and affected by Ebola – and those who have succumbed to it, knowing that their spirits will be forever with us. Until we have a cure, we must have the necessary response that will allow people to maintain their dignity and humanity.”

Sauls was joined by expert panelists including AHF Infectious Disease Specialist Parveen Kaur, M.D., who gave a thorough presentation on the background of Ebola, AHF Africa Bureau Chief Penninah “Penny” Iutung Amor, M.D., and AHF President Michael Weinstein.  Following the panelist presentations, audience members raised questions ranging from the implications of race in the treatment and portrayal of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Dallas resident of Liberian descent who was the first person to die of Ebola in America, to precautions church members should take during an upcoming missionary trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“It’s very sad to say that the largest factor right now in survival from Ebola has to do with the color of your skin and the country of your origin,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “Every American who has been brought back to the United States has survived.  The biggest tragedy is not just the human lives that have so far been lost, but what it exposes about our lack of readiness and rapid-response mechanisms against disease in the world. But, most importantly, it’s shown that we will once again allow a killer disease to rage in a part of the world that we think is ‘over there’ and that we don’t truly care about.”

According to the World Health Organization, a total of 10,141 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola have been reported in six affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Spain, and the U.S.) and two previously affected countries (Nigeria, Senegal) up to the end of October 23. At least 450 health care workers in West Africa have been infected with Ebola, and 244 have died.

“Why was the world seemingly surprised that is epidemic was raging out of control?” questioned Dr. Iutung Amor. “The writing was always on the wall. There was no way these West African countries could cope with this epidemic for a multitude of reasons – ranging from inexperience with the disease and lack of basic medical equipment and supplies to skeletal World Health Organization offices operating in theses countries that were incapable of adequately coordinating the massive response needed.”

AHF, which cares for over 350,000 HIV/AIDS patients in 36 countries, has lost two physicians to Ebola: Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, the physician who had been leading Sierra Leone’s response to Ebola and who also served as Medical Officer for AHF’s Country Program there, died July 29th; and Dr. John Taban Dada, a Ugandan national living and working in Monrovia, Liberia, died from Ebola on October 9th.

“The deaths of the only virologist in Sierra Leone, Dr. Khan, who treated over 100 patients before he succumbed to the epidemic in July, and Dr. Dada, a fellow Ugandan caring for Ebola patients in Liberia, are devastating losses not only for AHF but for the entire African community and indeed the world,” explained Dr. Iutung Amor. “I also lost my classmate Dr. Mutoro Samuel, who was working in Liberia. Furthermore, many nurses have already succumbed to the disease. Let’s help these nations survive. Let’s preserve the lives of the health workers at the forefront of this epidemic.”

The forum concluded with a prayer for those affected by the Ebola epidemic, written by Ghana native Rev. Frederick Yebuah. It ends with the words, “Grant us peace that Ebola or anything in this life that would threaten to undo us, is not impossible for you.”

Continuing its tradition of community activism, Holman UMC will be hosting its “World AIDS Weekend” in commemoration of World AIDS Day on December 1. Preceding World AIDS Day, Holman, in collaboration with AHF, In The Meantime Men’s Groups, and several community groups and congregations, will be hosting a memorial service at the church for those who succumbed to HIV/AIDS and Ebola in Friday, November 28th at 7:00 p.m.  On Sunday, November 30th, the congregation will celebrate World AIDS Sunday by hosting a forum entitled, “Ending Stigma, Extending Love” at 9:00 a.m., followed by an 11:00 a.m. Worship Celebration of hope and healing to begin the Advent Season. The Forum will be preceded by a light breakfast at 8:30 a.m. The Worship Celebration will be followed with light refreshments. The public is invited to join the congregation in the Memorial Service, Faith & Health Forum and Worship Celebration.

“I urge the faith and health communities to make time and create space and place to host more such preventative health forums as an integral part of life-giving faith formation to promote wellness and wholeness,” said Rev. Sauls.

Photo gallery available here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aidshealth/sets/72157648654657938/

From left to right:
Parveen Kaur, M.D., Chair, Infection Prevention and Control Committee, AHF
Penninah Iutung Amor, M.D., Africa Bureau Chief for AHF
Michael Weinstein, President, AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Rev. Kelvin Sauls, Pastor, Holman United Methodist Church