Wars nowadays are fought by remote control, with drones, missiles and bombers. But the only way to win the war on Ebola is with boots on the ground.

The heroism of grunts who work to exhaustion to save lives ought to be the real focus of media coverage of the epidemic which threatens people Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and even Nigeria.

Of course, scientists in the West are working hard to develop a vaccine for the disease which kills between 50 and 90 percent of its victims. But the only one specifically aimed at Ebola, an American drug called ZMapp, has not even been tested properly on animals.

And there are weighty ethical and social obstacles to distributing it willy-nilly to people with the disease. Although some of the people who have taken it have regained their health, others have died. The World Health Organization has authorised doctors to use the few doses which are currently available because the situation is desperate. If patients died after using the drug, uneducated locals could turn against Western medicine and healthcare. There already have been riots in Liberia because locals fear that Western medicine is actually spreading the disease.

So, at the moment, ZMapp and other drugs are a sideshow. Ebola has to be fought the hard way, one on one, by foot soldiers with technical skill and extraordinary courage. In the war on Ebola many of the doctors, nurses and support staff are genuine heroes.

This is evident in Sierra Leone. One of the first healthcare workers to die was 39-year-old Dr Sheik Umar Khan, his country’s only specialist in viral haemorrhagic fevers. He helped to cure more than a hundred patients before he succumbed himself. “He knew the risks and had choices, but he chose to risk his own life to save that of others,” said a World Bank official.

At Kenema Government Hospital (KGH), where Khan worked and where Sierra Leone’s first case was diagnosed, more than two dozen healthcare workers have been infected and died. Science, one of the world’s leading journals, published an early online paper on the Ebola virus last Thursday. Six of the authors are already dead, five from Ebola, all from KGH.

People fighting Ebola work in a terrible environment. Laurie Garrett, a journalist who wrote an acclaimed book about an Ebola epidemic in Democratic Republic of the Congo, explained some of the dangers at a recent seminar organised by the Council on Foreign Relations:

“The key is, you get it by contact with bodily fluids. And the individuals at their peak state of hemorrhage will actually be hemorrhaging external, as well as internally, and all of their tears, their — everything from their nose, their mouth, their anus, genitals, everything, will have bodily fluid in it that contains live virus.

“So if an individual, for example, is wiping the brow of a loved one in the home instead of taking them into hospital, and happens to touch the fluids with their hands, and then touch their own nose or their own mouth or their own eye, they will infect themselves. It’s as simple as that.

“Now, why would health care workers dressed in body suits that you’ve seen on television get infected? Because it is a hideously difficult thing to work inside of one of those suits. You know, it’s a combination of acute claustrophobia and temperatures that have been measured as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit inside the suit.

“It’s easy under such conditions, when on top of everything else you’re surrounded by grief and fearfulness and by hostile family members and so on. It’s very easy to breach your own security and thereby somehow get yourself infected, either through puncturing your suit or improperly undressing from your security gown and accidentally exposing yourself to the contaminants on the outside of the security gown.”

Could anyone work in such an environment?

Yes, but they are very special people. The New York Times recently highlighted the work of Josephine Finda Sellu, the 42-year-old deputy nurse matron, a brisk, cheerful and courageous  woman. “There is a need for me to be around,” she told the New York Times. “I am a senior. All the junior nurses look up to me.” If she left, she said, “the whole thing would collapse.”

“There are times when I say, ‘Oh my God, I should have chosen secretarial,’ ” she says. But nursing “is the calling of God.” The Times describes the difficult and dangerous work of those who continue to serve:

“… the front line is stitched together by people like Ms Sellu: doctors and nurses who give their lives to treat patients who will probably die; janitors who clean up lethal pools of vomit and waste so that beleaguered health centers can stay open; drivers who venture into villages overcome by illness to retrieve patients; body handlers charged with the dangerous task of keeping highly infectious corpses from sickening others.

“Their sacrifices are evident from the statistics alone. At least 129 health workers have died fighting the disease, according to the World Health Organization. But while many workers have fled, leaving already shaky health systems in shambles, many new recruits have signed up willingly — often for little or no pay, and sometimes giving up their homes, communities and even families in the process.”

Buzzfeed has described the generous work of Jonathan Enders, a Liberian living in the capital, Monrovia, whose contribution to the war on Ebola is preparing meals for the technicians who test the blood of suspected Ebola patients. That sounds simple, but nobody was feeding them; anything to do with Ebola is just too terrifying.

Enders, who is not a man of great means, heard about it and was dismayed. He persuaded three women to cook and friends to donate food. “We’ve had an opportunity [to help] that a lot of people have not had,” Enders says. “The joy I have is that every morning people look forward to receiving something, getting some encouragement because I’m willing to be there for them.”

There is a glamorous side to the war on Ebola: scientists feverishly working in spotless, air-conditioned laboratories to find a cure for a dread disease. The grunt side is not glamorous at all. It’s testing and nursing and burying highly infectious patients. It’s worrying about whether you will die. These are the real heroes.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Here is a video about teams which investigate Ebola deaths in Sierra Leone. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.