UNION GROVE — As the Ebola epidemic sweeps across western Africa, a local woman finds herself at the epicenter of efforts to control the outbreak.
Emily Veltus, 29, a graduate of Union Grove High School, is in the western African nation of Sierra Leone, working in epidemiology for the international non-governmental organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders.
She’s been there since July 10 and is not supposed to finish her assignment until September, although she may stay longer because of the need, she said in emails from last week.
According to information from the World Health Organization that Medecins Sans Frontieres released Friday, there have been 848 cases of Ebola and 518 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia since the beginning of the outbreak in February.
There is no known cure for the virus, which causes raging fever, vomiting, diarrhea and uncontrolled bleeding in about half the cases and has a high mortality rate of up to 90 percent. Merely touching an infected person, or the body of a victim, is dangerous; coming into contact with blood, vomit or feces can be deadly, according to information from a variety of sources.
It is thought to have first been transmitted to humans from bats or monkeys, Veltus said.
Since the virus is easily spread, it poses a particular threat to health care workers, including to an American physician who was flown back to the United States on Saturday and is being treated at Atlanta’s Emory University.
Veltus has a bachelor of science in biochemistry and evolutionary ecology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a master of science in public health in tropical medicine from Tulane University in New Orleans.
She also has been in Africa before, conducting undergraduate studies in Zanzibar, graduate work in Sierra Leone in 2009 and field work in South Sudan for Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Carter Center’s guinea worm eradication program. So she actually sought out her
“I enjoy working in public health, especially with parasites and infectious diseases,” Veltus wrote. “I also really love travelling and experiencing new cultures. There is nothing quite like working in the field with amazing people who share your passions.”
In her current assignment, Veltus is working as a health promotion supervisor. Her work involves travelling to villages to educate the public about the dangers of the disease and to dispell rumors, including some that blame international aid workers with bringing the epidemic to the region.
The organization also runs a treatment center in Kailahun, where Veltus is based. Her department helps arrange visits to patients from friends and family. They then work to help reduce stigmatization when the few survivors of the disease return to their communities. Her work schedule is grueling; she works 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week.
And what of the dangers? Veltus said that Medecins Sans Frontieres goes to extraordinary means to protect its workers and volunteers. Those with direct patient contact wear personal protective clothing up to yellow suits and head gear like what Walt White wore in “Breaking Bad.”
Veltus said she wears just T-shirts and trousers, but abides by Medecins Sans Frontieres’ strict “no-touch” orders, which extend not just to residents of the country, but also between Medecins Sans Frontieres staff members as well — even at social events like dances.
Veltus’ family definitely worries about her safety, said her father, Greg, an accountant in Racine. But they know that Emily is passionate about her work.
“It’s hard for the parent because you never stop worrying about them,” Greg Veltus said. “You just go with it. It’s what she loves to do. She’s an amazing person who loves to help people.”
Living conditions for Emily are not horrible at the moment. Medecins Sans Frontieres has converted an old hotel into a dormitory and it even has running water, private bathrooms and air conditioning, a stark contrast to what she experienced on past trips to Africa when she stayed in huts.
She has also been able to explore the continent to an extent thanks to time off between assignments. On those breaks she has been able to go to beaches, safaris and sporting events. And she has been able to visit friends and host families met on her travels.
Veltus plans to continue her work with Medecins Sans Frontieres for the foreseeable future, but eventually would like to attend medical school. While becoming an infectious disease specialist would seem a natural for her, she may study emergency medicine. That’s because she would like to continue working in the third world and research hospitals are not prevalent like they are in the U.S.
“I function well under extreme pressure and feel that emergency medicine is relevant to the contexts I choose to work,” Veltus said.