Undeterred by grim and demanding
circumstances, its employees and volunteers have worked
steadily for decades to fulfill the organization's mission.
Last year, it undertook a monumental task—fighting a deadly
infectious disease that spreads readily—a duty that rightly
belongs to the international community, not an outfit that
is funded primarily by individual donors.
Leading the charge against Ebola
In March 2014, MSF leaders realized that Guinea was facing
"an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen." Ebola had
struck. Cases were scattered over a wide area, and infection
soon spread to other parts of West Africa, especially
Liberia and Sierra Leone.
No vaccine, rapid diagnostic tool or treatment existed for
the disease, which kills 50 percent of its victims. People
were terrified. Individuals denied that they were sick,
governments denied that their citizens were sick, and the
World Health Organization denied the severity of the
On this bleak backdrop, MSF sprang into action. It sent in
experts who had responded to multiple Ebola outbreaks,
identified infected people, and built isolation hospitals.
The organization imported necessary supplies such as
chlorine for decontaminating materials exposed to the virus
and protective gear that keeps nurses and doctors safe. Its
sanitation experts set up systems to ensure that viral
particles did not escape and that waste was disposed of
Staff members did everything. They went out with ambulances
to pick up sick individuals, decontaminated houses, oversaw
funerals to make sure no one got infected from local burial
practices, and traced the epidemic. They trained local
healthcare workers and eventually participated in clinical
trials of new therapeutic agents.
For the first time, MSF had to build a crematorium. The
economic infrastructure had collapsed, and it couldn't rely
on airlines or the usual medical evacuation systems.
In this environment, MSF workers undertook
the responsibility to treat patients and contain the
epidemic at great risk to themselves. For many months, it
was alone in its work. UN agencies were absent or were
present in a nominal way, without sending hands-on support.
In August 2014, the World Health Organization finally stated
that the outbreak was "a public health emergency of
international concern." Still, resources remained slim. When
other organizations began stepping up, MSF provided
guidelines and trained many of their personnel.
More than 11,000 people have lost their lives to Ebola in
West Africa, including hundreds of health workers. The
epidemic is drawing to a close, but immense challenges
Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia never had fully
functioning health systems, and what was there has now
crumpled. MSF is building maternity and pediatric hospitals,
and it is reviving childhood vaccine programs, which have
been on hold for more than a year; it is also treating
malaria and other endemic illnesses.
Huge numbers of people are traumatized from
the epidemic, so the organization is providing mental health
care. Furthermore, some Ebola survivors confront lingering
problems from their infections as well as social stigma, and
MSF has established clinics to help address these issues.
The organization is also pushing for policies
and programs that ensure a robust international response the
next time the disease hits. It is backing efforts to ensure
the development of vaccines, treatments, and rapid
diagnostic tools. Toward that end, it is promoting a system
in which knowledge gained from research is shared in an
Throughout the crisis, MSF has advocated on
many levels. From the first days of the epidemic, it has
spoken out about counterproductive activities on the ground
and issued an unrelenting cry for the world to join the
struggle against the deadly disease. It described the dire
situation and called for governments and international
agencies to provide trained medical personnel. The World
Health Organization and its constituent countries are
finally beginning to come to grips with what is needed. In
May, it announced that it would create a $100M fund that
will support an international rapid response system for
Since its inception, MSF has tackled the world's most
overwhelming disasters that affect the planet's most
marginalized people, and its activities during the last 18
months have demonstrated its exceptional perseverance and
effectiveness. The organization spearheaded the campaign
against Ebola and modeled how to combat dangerous infections
that might some day threaten everyone on Earth.