Gaining a different perspective on the world
Brittany Anderson, a 2012 Sparta High School graduate, isn't letting the grass grow under her feet.
Currently a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, she recently completed a one-month stint in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa where she conducted research on the cultural effects of the Ebola virus in the disease's aftermath.
Anderson has been giving presentations on her findings and was at the Sparta Kiwanis Club meeting last week, relating her experience.
She said she spent the month in Sierra Leone interviewing people subjected to quarantines during the 2014-15 outbreak of the virus. The country of 1.6 million was the hardest hit by Ebola, recording 14,124 cases over that time period.
Between it and its bordering countries of Guinea and Liberia, there were over 24,000 cases of the disease, which is spread through bodily fluids and has a 43% mortality rate.
Anderson spent her time in the coastal city of Freetown, working for the non-governmental agency We Yone Child Foundation (WYFC), an organization dedicated to child education that aided in her in her research project.
She said people and families believed to have been exposed to the virus were subjected to quarantines of over 21 days, the time it takes symptoms to appear after contracting the virus. Those people's lives were often devastated, too, even though they never contracted the virus.
Some had lost families and had no support during their isolation, while many suffered the stigma associated with being close to the disease and became social pariahs.
While it's still up for debate how Ebola spread so rapidly in the region, Anderson said it's likely a combination of things exacerbated by Sierra Leone's civil war that lasted between 1999 and 2002, devastating the country's hospitals and medical clinics.
While the country is a politically stable democracy now, it's health care system never fully recovered, leaving in place what Anderson described as a "perfect storm" for the Ebola virus to spread.
"It wasn't a matter of if it would happen, but when it would happen," she said.
Anderson began studying the Ebola outbreak as an undergraduate at Luther College in Decorah, IA where she graduated with degrees in biology and anthropology.
While she studied the biological aspect of Ebola, she became intrigued by the anthropological side of the equation, writing her master's thesis on Sierra Leone's culture and people in the aftermath of the virus.
"But I felt that unless I went there I would never understand what it was like in Sierra Leone," she said.
She plans to return to the country, which has been Ebola free for a year and a half, a few more times beginning next summer and is encouraging groups she talks to in the U.S. to volunteer or help out financially.
Anderson went as a volunteer, working in the WYCF's office. Her biggest expense was the plane fare over, but for $250 for the month she received room and board.
She said she could tell her presence was appreciated, as was the research she was doing. That was enough to bring her a sense of self satisfaction.
"Knowing the people there think my work is valuable is what matters to me," said Anderson.
She admits a volunteer trip to the country isn't going include the creature comforts Americans are used to -- showers are bucket showers, electricity isn't always available and it's neccessary to sleep under a mosquito net.
"It's not going to be a trip for everyone, but it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of trips," she said. "It's the kind of experience everyone should have at least once because it gives you a completely different perspective on the world."
Anderson's parents are Tom Anderson, director of Monroe County Shelter Care, and Linda Anderson, Rolling Hills Nursing Home administrator.
Those interested in donating time or money to help out the people of Sierra Leone should visit the website weyonechildfoundation.org for more information.