How 8 U.S. diplomats fought the 2014 Ebola epidemic

Top row, fron left: Alexander Laskaris, Ervin Massinga, Gregory Martin. Middle row: Gary Penner, Sheila Paskman. Bottom row: John Hoover, Kathleen FitzGibbon, Deborah Malac. (State Dept.)
Top row, fron left: Alexander Laskaris, Ervin Massinga, Gregory Martin. Middle row: Gary Penner, Sheila Paskman. Bottom row: John Hoover, Kathleen FitzGibbon, Deborah Malac. (State Dept.)

During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa seven years ago, eight U.S. diplomats worked tirelessly for two years to save lives from the deadly virus.

On October 13, the U.S. Department of State honored Ambassadors Deborah Malac, John Hoover, Alexander Laskaris, and Dr. Gary Penner, Kathleen FitzGibbon, Ervin Massinga, Sheila Paskman and Dr. Gregory Martin as the latest Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy for their quick and effective coordinating efforts during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

“The actions of these individuals and the teams they supported prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths,” said retired Ambassador Nancy Powell as she introduced the eight honorees. Powell noted “they also contributed to an increase in global health funding” by mobilizing support from U.S. government agencies and international donors.

When the Ebola epidemic began, the eight diplomats — who then worked in the Bureau of Medical Services at the U.S. embassies in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — helped develop a plan to overcome widespread fear, led the U.S. government response, collaborated with interagency teams and advised governments on ending the outbreak.

Their collaboration kept their embassies and staff and locally employed staff safe during the Ebola epidemic. The Department of State developed a new transport system for medical evacuations, and, ultimately, there were no cases of Ebola among U.S. embassy personnel.

“We really tried to let the science prevail,” Martin said. “And not only did we not have any deaths, we didn’t even have any close contacts among any of our chief-of-mission personnel.”

Their fast response also contributed to the end of the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

While keeping in mind the wide array of distinct cultural and social practices within West Africa, the eight diplomats worked with communities to ensure safe medical practices — especially helping sick families quarantine and bury their deceased loved ones without exposing the community to the virus.

The Ebola recovery center in Liberia. The collaborative efforts across U.S. agencies saved countless lives. (USAID)

The diplomats also mobilized support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Department of Defense and local governments to support development of an Ebola vaccine.

At the time, these U.S. agencies’ presence in the region was comparatively small. The work of these diplomats left a larger, more permanent presence in the region and increased health care infrastructure.

The success of the Ebola contact tracing, treatment and healthy practices ultimately helped stop the spread and end the epidemic.

Crisis management across the three embassies was “the best collaboration across interagency network that I’ve seen in almost any place, certainly in the course of my career,” Malac said. “We could see the epidemic unrolling in front of us and we knew we had to catch up.”

Since September 2019, the Department of State has shared the stories of modern-day and historical “Heroes of Diplomacy.” These individuals exhibited intellectual, moral and even physical courage while advancing the department’s mission.