Ebola takes toll on West Africans in Metro Detroit

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit – — When Philip Saywrayne's niece Maboo became ill, his sister Pannah did what any mother would do and went to go take care of her daughter. Pannah took time off from her job in an orphanage in Grand Bassa and traveled to Monrovia, Liberia's capital,to stay with Maboo.

Philip Saywrayne, 39, of Farmington Hills, listens on Saturday during the Liberian Association of Michigan’s panel discussion on the Ebola virus in his homeland. His sister, Pannah Saywrayne Brumskine, and his niece, Maboo Brumskine, her daughter, both died in August from Ebola.

By the time Maboo had died, Pannah was feeling ill herself. And by the time doctors determined Maboo had died of the Ebola virus, it was too late for Pannah.

"I was close to my sister," said Saywrayne, who came to the United States 17 years ago and now lives in Farmington Hills. "It's so sad that she has passed."

Saywrayne's family buried his niece August 15 and his sister August 28. They are two of nearly 3,000 West Africans who have died from the disease, according to the World Health Organization. And even more deaths are likely. To date, the virus has infected 6,242 people and killed 2,909 of them, according to figures from the World Health Organization. These figures, which are far greater than those from all previous Ebola outbreaks combined, are known by WHO to vastly underestimate the true scale of the epidemic.

In addition to the families suffering overseas, the virus is taking a toll on Metro Detroit's Liberian and West African population as they wait, hoping not to get the news that a loved one has died.

"When I go home I watch the news to see the death rate, the survival rate, whether there is any sign of improvement," Saywrayne said. "It causes a lot of strain of families."

Epidemiologist Harolyn Tarr Baker, 35, of Detroit, talks about the rise in deaths in Liberia from Ebola on Saturday during the Liberian Association of Michigan’s session on the virus.

On Saturday, the Liberian Association of Michigan held a panel discussion with the Liberian community to inform them of the conditions and complications with the virus that their family members are facing back home at their community center on the city's west side. The goal was to provide ideas for ways people can help.

The organization is holding a fundraiser, with a goal of $5,000. As of Saturday, they have raised about $2,000.

Minister Esi Collins, center, of Detroit leads African gospel songs as others from the Liberian community center and Rock of Salvation Prayer Ministries prayer group join in.


"The Ebola situation is something we never expected," said Rosettus Weeks, vice president of the Liberian Association of Michigan. "We are committed to helping the Liberians in Michigan and the Liberians back home."

Before the panel discussion, participants rallied and held a prayer vigil for those who died from the virus.

"When Ebola comes, you kick it away, away, away," members with the Rock of Salvation Prayer Ministries sang as they led the crowd of about 50 in stomping their feet as if stamping the disease out of existence.

"In times like these where an epidemic has struck in a country ill prepared to deal with medical services, you know people are going to die," said the Rev. Charles Boague, pastor at Second Grace United Methodist Church, where half of the congregation is Liberian. "Part of it is to offer counsel and prayer."

Boague's uncle, nephew and the boy's mother have all died from the virus, so he understands the grief affecting his community. He is also focused on offering suggestions for building better medical services in Liberia.

"It is a complete terror people are feeling," he said. "Liberia should never be like this again — ill prepared."

It's been more than six months since the World Health Organization was informed of the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Although cases are widespread, the hardest hit countries have been Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where poorly equipped medical facilities and slum conditions in many cities have contributed to the spread of the virus.

In Liberia last week, 113 new cases were reported over a single 24-hour period — easily breaking records at all outbreak sites, according to the WHO.

The virus is transmitted from wild animals to people and spreads from human-to-human contact. Half of all people who contract the disease during this outbreak, the widest spread case since the virus was discovered in 1976, will die, according to WHO reports.

The virus incubates for two to 21 days before the first symptoms show. They can include the sudden onset of fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, organ failure and in some cases, internal and external bleeding.

Harolyn Baker, vice chairman of the board of theLiberian Association of Michigan and an epidemiologist, said the group has been holding a fundraiser and item drive to "do something in our own weak way."

Baker told a story about her friend, a medical professional who was in Liberia and came across a five year old with Ebola. He was crying to her on the phone, because what he saw was so heartbreaking.

"You can't even hold your child. It's such a painful isolated way to die," Baker said. "We're doing this because that could be our child. Those are our cousins, our sisters, our nieces."


(313) 222-2127

How to help

■To donate to the Liberian Association of Michigan's fundraiser, visit gofundme.com/cn7q58 or send checksto The Liberian Association of Michigan, 13300 Puritan Street, Detroit, MI 48227. Donations can also be made at any Bank of America branch.

■The association isasking for donations of the following: antibacterial soap, 60 percent rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, chlorine, disposable surgical gowns (fluid resistant or impermeable), eye protection (goggles or face shields), medical grade gloves, N 95 masks.

For information, call Martha Toe at (313) 412-0229.