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Reedie fights Ebola in Liberia

By Bill Donahue on November 05, 2014 04:15 PM

UNICEF honcho Sheldon Yett '86 leads fight against Ebola in Liberia. UNICEF

Sheldon Yett ’86 got two hours of sleep last night and now, as ambulances scream by his office window in Monrovia, he’s worried about the three emergency responders he just sent out into remote northeast Liberia, to distribute medical and infection control supplies to a village. “Do they have enough chlorine?” he wonders, “Enough rehydration supplies?”

Tomorrow morning, Sheldon will leave the Liberian capital in a helicopter, bound for another remote village, to discuss crisis health care with community leaders. Meanwhile, visitors flow into Liberia—Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health; and Borge Brende, the foreign minister of Norway. Visitors to Sheldon’s office must stop by a bucket filled with a chlorine solution to wash their hands and have their temperature checked as a guard stands watching. The electricity and the internet flickers, and in a brief moment of respite, Sheldon stares blankly into the Skype camera on his computer, rubbing his temples. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” he says.

As head of the mission in Liberia for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Sheldon sits at ground zero of the Ebola virus crisis, which the World Health Organization has called “the most severe, acute public health emergency in modern times.” Liberia, an impoverished West African country that’s the size of Tennessee with a population of 4.3 million, has seen about 5,000 deaths from Ebola—more than any other nation—and Sheldon, who hass been in Liberia since August 2013, is now leading a 200-member team intent on promoting child welfare amid the crisis. It is difficult to capture the depth of the challenges he has faced since the epidemic broke out last spring. Every school in Liberia is currently closed. Roughly 1,000 children have been orphaned by the virus. The nation is one of the poorest in the world—per capita GDP was $454 last year—and it is still reeling from its circa-2000 civil war. Only 43% of its adults can read, and many rural families are still unaware of how to prevent Ebola, which is typically transmitted via the sharing of bodily fluids. Some Liberians are still hand washing the bodies of the just-deceased, per local custom. Indeed, until recently, widespread belief in Liberia held that Ebola was a fiction—a phantom disease made up by government mucky-mucks hungry for foreign aid.

Sheldon is making progress, though. In recent months, UNICEF planes have delivered 800 tons of medical and nutritional supplies to Liberia. Sheldon is trying get schools reopened—a challenge because many schools don’t have running water, a necessity for fighting Ebola. He’s also assembling a radio curriculum for Liberian kids. Meanwhile, UNICEF has trained what may be Liberia’s most effective contingent of anti-Ebola activists.

In a particularly dire Monrovia slum called West Point, some 200 teenage girls, aged 16 to 19, along with a smattering of boys, are now going door to door, delivering a basic message: “Ebola is real. Don’t shake hands.” The group calls itself Adolescents Leading an Intense Fight Against Ebola, or A-LIFE. The kids hatched the crusade themselves, but they owe their start to UNICEF, which recently formed a support group in West Point to teach young girls how to fight back against sexual violence. “UNICEF provided A-Life with training materials and with health protocols on Ebola,” says Sheldon, reluctantly taking credit, “and it’s fantastic what they’re doing.”

A-LIFE is just part of UNICEF’s multipronged effort to fight Ebola. The agency has enlisted popular local rappers F.A., Soul Fresh, and DenG, to record a song, “Ebola is Real,” that has since become a top hit in Liberia, regaling radio audiences with the smooth sounds of Hip Co, a Liberian genre of hip hop, as it warns, “It’s real/It’s time to protect yourself.” UNICEF also made a six-minute video, Together, in which a broad array of Liberian leaders—the nation’s president, an archbishop, a Muslim sheikh, a Hip Co star and a county chief—unite to deliver a primer on Ebola. “It comes with pain in the muscle, sore throat, weakness, runny stomach, vomiting, and stomach pain,” one woman says. “Don’t touch a sick person, their pee pee, their poo poo, their vomit, or their pus and blood,” says Hip Co artist Takun J.

“We’re facing the same issues that Coca-Cola faces,” Sheldon recently told the Atlantic. “Different messages are more effective with different audiences.”

If Sheldon is familiar with African culture, it’s partly because he went to high school there—in Nairobi, Kenya, where his parents were working as Foreign Service officers. “When I came to Reed,” he says, “I knew nothing about American pop culture. Freshman year, I hung out with the international students.”

Soon, Sheldon found a lasting friend and mentor in the debonair scholar of diplomacy, Prof. Ed Segel [history 1973–2011]. “It’s funny,” he says, “but somehow the guy walking around campus in a well-tailored suit was the easiest person to talk to.”

Prof. Segel helped Sheldon through his culture shock and parceled out judicious nuggets of wisdom. “Ed taught me to be self-critical,” Sheldon says. “I remember when we occupied the president’s office during the apartheid years, to push Reed into divesting in companies in South Africa. Ed told us, ‘You guys are just mental masturbators. What you’re doing will make no difference.’ I didn’t agree with him. I still don’t. But he was right to ask, ‘Are you just doing this to impress yourselves?’”

Segel advised Sheldon on his senior thesis on international food aid, and encouraged him to join the Peace Corps. After Reed, Sheldon spent two years in Niger with the agency before attending grad school at Johns Hopkins and allying with Catholic Relief Services to deliver 50-pound bags of rice to genocide-riven Rwanda in 1995.

By the time Sheldon returned to Reed in 2011 for his 25th reunion, he was a seasoned UN diplomat, with experience in Macedonia, Armenia, Burundi, Kosovo, and Somalia. Still, when he ran into Segel, the distinguished prof, now emeritus, did not hesitate to correct him when he hazarded a cocktail party summary of E.H. Carr's book What is History? “Sorry,” Segel said, raising a pedagogical index finger. “You’re wrong.”

Now, in Monrovia, Sheldon laughs about that encounter, and it seems that his humility and his unrehearsed bonhomie have likely helped in the fight against Ebola. Last week, the WHO announced that Ebola-related deaths have begun trending downward in Liberia. Dr. Bruce Aylward, an assistant director general for WHO, said there could be a much as a 25% week-on-week reduction in Ebola cases in Liberia.

Sheldon sees glimmers of hope. “Communities are changing their behavior,” he says. “They’re controlling access to visitors, to keep the disease out. People are quicker to isolate Ebola cases and move the sick to care. We’re seeing changes in burials. At times, it feels like we’re rounding the bend, but really it’s more of a roller coaster ride. We just have to hang on and keep going.”

Then the phone rings, and he gets back to work.