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Q&A with Liberia Ebola aid worker John Strader

After physician assistant John Strader retired from the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center last year, he went to Monrovia, Liberia, for seven months.

Strader helped with a clinical trial through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, treating Ebola patients with plasma from survivors. He also worked with nonprofit organizations to provide portable water purification devices for Ebola survivors.

Strader is returning to Liberia this fall to help rebuild the medical infrastructures in the country. He spoke with Senior Writer Wei Zhou about his plans.

THE DAILY TAR HEEL: What’s the biggest challenge for you there in Liberia?

JOHN STRADER: They had (the) fourth poorest country in the world. They had very poor medical infrastructures. So when Ebola occurred in their country, it basically exposed all the real problems they had as a country ... If you look at West Africa in that particular area, there was a very low socio-economic situation with poverty and poor access to medical care.

DTH: What do you think they still need over there?

JS: Clean water. Water is life ... In Liberia, there are wells. But the wells that have been put in by UNICEF or these different agencies around the world ... the well is a shallow well ... With the shallow wells, we have tested and found the wells are contaminated.

Because of their poor water, they are very susceptible to Ebola. I came to realize that if we really want to make a difference in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, we really have to focus at the basic framework of health, and that’s prevention and protection.

DTH: When you come back (to Liberia) this fall, are you going to have another contract with the Gates Foundation?

JS: I am more into the practical part of being able to help rebuild their infrastructures— medical infrastructures— and water is the cornerstone ... When I left UNC, the cancer hospital, people said, “You are crazy to do this.” And my comment was, “If there is a fire in the building, people will be going out of the building — firemen running in to put the fire out.”

There was a global initiative to go in, to put the fire out, in West Africa with Ebola. So we’ve got the fire under control. It still has some cases in Guinea and Liberia. Now it’s the time to rebuild the building.

That is what my purpose is: to help rebuild the medical infrastructure of Liberia, and — water being the cornerstone — to help the survivors be able to work as health ambassadors for their own country, so that they can be able to help their own people.

DTH: What do you hope to accomplish when you come back?

JS: I worked with Liberians, and they went through (many) years of civil war ... They said they’d rather go through a civil war than go through one Ebola outbreak. Because you can hear a gunfire or a rocket, but with Ebola, it was like a sniper. It was a silent killer.

Everybody became a suspect — your wife became a suspect, your husband became a suspect, your children became suspects because they may have Ebola. People were terrified of each other.

And when the Ebola outbreak was going on, you know, outside these Ebola treatment units, people were lining up, dying. It looked like a zombie movie ... Now it’s the time to rebuild the building — to rebuild Liberia.

That is my purpose. That is my calling. This is my passion ... My heart is still there.

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