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Rutgers community provides targeted Ebola aid for Liberia

 – Photo by STRINGER

Imagine walking into a Rutgers health care center with a high fever and finding the place nearly deserted. Most of the nurses and doctors are sick, dead or too afraid to show up. 

For the remaining few, there are no gloves, soap or disinfectant. 

Jim Simon described this scenario to illustrate the urgent need for medical supplies in Liberia in the wake of the Ebola outbreak. 

Simon, a distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology at Rutgers, helped start Operation: Targeted Support, a volunteer initiative at Rutgers focused on shipping medical supplies overseas. 

The operation reflects the growing concern among faculty and experts around the world that governments and institutions are moving too slowly to provide time-sensitive, tangible aid on the ground, Simon said. 

Rather than debating policy issues or sending general aid in the form of canned foods and clothing, the University is targeting its efforts at one specific problem: the lack of protective gear and medical supplies for doctors and nurses who are at risk of contracting the disease daily, he said.

Planning began in early August, and the first shipment was made on Aug. 19. 

“We move and act in a very strategic and careful manner,” Simon said, emphasizing that 100 percent of donations goes toward funding the purchase and transportation of supplies. 

Rutgers has a long-standing academic partnership with the University of Liberia, whose president, Emmet Dennis, is a former Rutgers professor, Simon said. Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf called up Dennis for the position. 

More than multi-million dollar grants and research, this unrequired labor from caring students and staff is what strengthens relationships between the universities, Simon said. 

 “This effort, more than anything else we’ve done — more than grants — shows Rutgers as a community,” he said. 

Simon emphasized that efforts to help aid the Ebola crisis have been a Rutgers community response. The Center for African Studies, Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences have all made contributions in their own ways. 

A GoFundMe campaign to provide emergency medical assistance to Liberia has raised $10,830 in two months. The goal is $50,000. 

The goal is to “provide a coordinated and timely support for the University of Liberia, Cuttington University, JFK hospital and Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital,” according to the GoFundMe website.  

Teja Turpuseema, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior, became involved after hearing about the project from Simon. 

 “You want to help a country that’s going through so much, but obviously I can’t go over there and offer my services, so I thought this was a great way to do something back here,” she said. 

The greatest challenge so far has been coordinating with so many people both domestically and overseas, Turpuseema said. Since the project is modeled after other emergency response procedures, quickly mobilizing a task force is a fundamental barrier. 

“We know there’s a lot of emergency needs out there, so there’s a concern on our part that we need to remain focused,” Simon said. “If people want to assist us, they know exactly what they’re getting for their assistance.” 

Companies such as Delta Air Lines have provided free or discounted shipping. In general, Simon hopes that companies will continue to keep prices fair, particularly in a time of crisis when costs could easily rise. 

Simon noted that cooperation from Liberian universities is particularly helpful since they are familiar with customs and the police force, helping OTS gain trust and transparency within the local community. 

Supplies are either delivered directly to their destinations or picked up at airports by medical teams, he said.

Other donations have come from University Hospital in Newark, the Department of University Management on the New Brunswick campus and Columbia University, said Cliff Kitto, former program coordinator in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology. 

Kitto, a current graduate student at Boston University, said containing the virus is in everyone’s best interest.

“Our best defense is to make sure that [Ebola] is treated and contained where it is located currently and doesn’t expand out,” Kitto said. “Part of that means that we have to make sure our health care workers over there, our volunteers, are protected.” 

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