The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa has captured the attention of the world and spread fear thousands of miles away to the US, but for Baton Rouge missionaries traveling to the other side of the world, the biggest fear is much more human.
Sitting in her office, framed by old brick walls dotted with pictures and small trinkets collected from trips abroad, Cheryl Yennie mapped out the locations of missionaries in the West African country of Cameroon. The team is part of Medical Centers of West Africa, a medical mission group founded in Baton Rouge in 1989.
"In 1994, we opened a 30-bed hospital,” said Yennie, executive director of MCWA. “We trained 45 Cameroon employees to work at the hospital. Today we have 120 beds, we have 140 Cameroon employees and we saw nearly 50,000 patients at the hospital."
The hospital is located in north Cameroon in the small town of Meskine and provides medical care for thousands. In recent months, West Africa has become synonymous with the Ebola virus, a devastating disease that has claimed more than 900 lives in four countries.
Infectious disease experts in Atlanta are currently treating two Americans who contracted the virus while working with infected patients in the region. Cameroon has yet to see the virus cross over from its neighbor, Nigeria. What has crossed over, however, has forced MCWA's missionaries to flee the hospital for the first time in 20 years.
"In 2013, we began to see activity from Nigerian extremists who came across the border. Beginning in 2014, we started to see attacks and kidnappings that came closer and closer to our hospital," Yennie explained.
The extremist group Boko Harram made international headlines when it kidnapped 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. That same group has allegedly spread into northern Cameroon, kidnapping and attacking Westerners.
"One of our team members said you go to sleep every night and you wonder, ‘Am I going to wake up and it's going to be the day we've got people at our door?’" Yennie added.
In May, violence from the group moved to just miles away from the hospital. MCWA decided then to relocate its team to another area in order to keep the hospital from becoming a target. For the first time, the hospital is running without help from MCWA volunteers.
“The fruit of many years of investing in them and their training has allowed them to keep the hospital open and continue to see patients," Yennie said.
Now, organizers help by consulting over the phone or internet. While Ebola has not affected residents there, plenty of other diseases impact the population. Those include tuberculosis, polio and a growing cholera outbreak. Yennie explained that in a developing country, containing any disease is an immense challenge, partly due to living conditions and partly due to culture.
"In developing countries, people travel long distances. They don't go to the doctor at the first scratchy throat. They are very resilient. They are accustomed to not feeling well and so, they do not recognize that they are sick," Yennie explained.
That's also why MCWA feels it has to continue its work and eventually return to the hospital. The group is monitoring both security and health threats in the area will re-evaluate in a few months to see if it is safe for its missionaries to return.
Until then, the missionaries will wait, pray and work from afar.
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