IU visiting scholar at center of Liberia’s battle against Ebola

Mosoka Fallah was hard at work in his native Liberia in early 2013 as part of an Indiana University project to establish a much-needed university curriculum in public health and to train nurses, physician assistants and others to provide public-health services in rural clinics.

Fallah teaching

Mosoka Fallah teaches a public health class in Liberia.

But events intervened, as they have a way of doing in Liberia. The worst outbreak of Ebola virus in history struck the West African nation this year, and Fallah has been in the thick of fighting it.

An article in Saturday’s New York Times profiles Fallah and describes his efforts to trace contacts of people who developed Ebola and to raise awareness of the virus and calm people’s fears. Key to his success: An ability to develop trust as someone who grew up in the slums of Monrovia.

Dr. Fallah, an epidemiologist and immunologist who grew up in Monrovia’s poorest neighborhoods before studying at Harvard, has been crisscrossing the capital in a race to repair that rift. Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, shack by shack, he is battling the disease across this crowded capital, seeking the cooperation of residents who are deeply distrustful of the government and its faltering response to the deadliest Ebola epidemic ever recorded.

“If people don’t trust you, they can hide a body, and you’ll never know,” Dr. Fallah said. “And Ebola will keep spreading. They’ve got to trust you, but we don’t have the luxury of time.”

With his experience straddling vastly different worlds, Dr. Fallah acts as a rare bridge: between community leaders and the Health Ministry, where he is an unpaid adviser; between the government and international organizations, which have the money to back his efforts.

Fallah has been a key consultant for the Center for Excellence in Health and Life Sciences, a collaboration between IU, the University of Liberia, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, JFK Memorial Hospital in Monrovia and Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through Higher Education for Development. Fallah holds the appointment of visiting scholar in epidemiology with the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington.

“Dr. Fallah was one of the very first people in Liberia to sound the alarm about the threat that the early cases of Ebola posed to Liberia,” said Charles Reafsnyder, who directed the IU-Liberia collaboration until his recent retirement. “Courageously, he has put his own personal resources and well-being on the line.”

Fallah came to the U.S. for graduate school, earning a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Kentucky and a master’s in public health from Harvard. Soon after he returned to Liberia, the Ebola crisis overwhelmed the country’s fragile health-care system. The handful of workers he had trained were drafted to the tasks of public education about the virus and tracing of contacts.

The Times article describes how Fallah developed a level of trust and authority that enabled him to calm a volatile situation in West Point, a Monrovia neighborhood. “But the scale of the task is daunting,” it says. “He is trying to beat Ebola in a city of 1.5 million people where the disease is expanding exponentially, where entire families search in vain for medical care, and where the main hospital is dangerously overwhelmed, plagued by electrical fires, floods and the deaths of health workers infected with the disease.”

The Ebola outbreak has killed nearly 2,500 people, about half the number infected, primarily in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. President Barack Obama said this week that a command center was being set up in Monrovia, supported by 3,000 U.S. forces, to coordinate relief efforts.

Friends of Liberia, headed by Verlon Stone, director of the Liberian Archives Project at IU Bloomington, has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to anti-Ebola efforts, primarily through Doctors Without Borders and Global Health Ministries. It recently donated $4,000 to Refuge Place International, a charity organized by Mosoka Fallah in Monrovia’s Chicken Soup Factory neighborhood where he grew up.

Information about contributing is on the Friends of Liberia website.