William Pooley – Ebola Hero or Fool?

Natalie Curtis's picture
Natalie Curtis Journalist

This week social media and news sites have been ablaze with debate about William Pooley – the British nurse brought back to London for treatment after contracting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

ActionAid staff explain how to protect yourself from Ebola
ActionAid's public health campaigns in Sierra Leone and Liberia are helping people understand how to protect themselves from Ebola.
Photo: ActionAid

He’s been described in comments left on mainstream news sites as ‘foolish', ‘selfish’ and in one particularly choice reaction as ‘SCUM, putting another country (the UK) at risk’. 

Thankfully there are also millions of people who see William Pooley for what he is: a selfless hero who made a measured decision to help where he could. 

William Pooley is a medical professional

William Pooley was not a ‘misguided gap year student’ looking for an ‘African adventure’ to tell his friends. He is a trained nurse, with a valuable skill to offer in a country whose medical capacity has been dwarfed by the Ebola virus.

He fully understood the risk he was putting himself in and made a measured decision to help, taking as many precautions as he could.

Working in the Sierra Leone government health system

William Pooley was already plugged into the government health system in Sierra Leone. He was based in Freetown for a six month placement at a hospice caring for people with HIV, cancer and TB. When he heard that there were health centres treating the Ebola epidemic, he went where there was greater need.

No risk to the UK

When William Pooley discovered he had contracted Ebola, he immediately alerted authorities and was placed in isolation – precisely what ActionAid and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been telling anyone who suspects they have Ebola to do.

UK Government ministers and health officials agreed to fly him back to Britain after they decided there was “no risk” that his repatriation would cause an outbreak in the UK.

Pooley’s hospital bed is reported to be surrounded by a specially-designed tent with its own controlled ventilation system and only specially-trained medical staff are allowed to treat him. He is in the best and safest possible place.

On the frontline of the Ebola response

William Pooley is just one of many brave women and men working across the world in unstable and often dangerous environments. ActionAid’s local staff working on the frontline of the Ebola response in Liberia and Sierra Leone are among them.

The safety of our staff on the ground is always the top agenda item in our daily Ebola emergency response meetings. But for as long as they can, ActionAid staff will continue to roll out our public health programmes, educating people how to protect themselves against Ebola and delivering food aid to families who have been stigmatised by the virus or can’t reach the market because of strict quarantine measures.

Because of the expertise and skill of ActionAid’s local staff, I thankfully don’t have to travel to Sierra Leone or Liberia to make a difference. I have to focus on supporting our programme teams the best I can. But medical workers undoubtedly have tougher choices to make. Ebola affected countries are calling out for medical assistance. William Pooley responded to that call.

I for one commend him for it and wish him a full and speedy recovery.

Ebola Outbreak: what’s the latest?

Michelle Lowery's picture
Michelle Lowery Communications Team

It’s been a difficult few weeks hearing the continued news about the spread of the Ebola in West Africa. I will be one of the first to admit I didn't know a huge amount about this virus, aside from it being incredibly frightening and in the vast majority of cases resulting in death. 

I didn’t know how it was transmitted and therefore how it could be prevented. You can learn more about that in my colleague Jane’s blog.

Laboratory technician Hassan Katta puts on gloves in Kenema government hospital before taking a blood sample from a suspected Ebola case.
Laboratory technician Hassan Katta puts on gloves in Kenema government hospital before taking a blood sample from a person suspected to have Ebola.
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ActionAid

However, knowing how to prevent it and learning what I can do to protect myself isn’t a life or death situation for me. This isn’t the case in Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries where we work and where the disease is spreading.

I interviewed ActionAid’s Country Director from Liberia, Korto Williams to find out the answers to some of the key questions we’ve been asked about Ebola. Of course, if you have other questions you can leave them in the comment box below and we’ll come back to you with answers. You can also follow this online debate from Reuters which Korto contributed to.

What is happening at the moment?

Some communities in Liberia have been quarantined to reduce transmission of the Ebola virus and enhance contact tracing. We’re providing families who have been quarantined with rice and oil to enable them to stay indoors.

We’re also continuing with our public health campaigning, working with local people in local languages people understand. Where this happens, we see that Ebola cases are much lower than were originally estimated.

Why isn’t the virus slowing down?

Tackling this virus requires a combination of three things: health education, good treatment and contact tracing. Unfortunately there are major challenges with all three.

In particular people are very fearful of contact tracing, as they are afraid of being criminalised or contracting Ebola by being compulsorily placed with other ‘suspected cases’ in hospital.

Then there is the issue of health education. People don’t always trust official information from the WHO or government.

Also, underlying everything is poverty. Liberia has very little in the way of basic services or even fully funded medical centres.

What is an Ebola contact and what is contact tracing?

A ’contact’ is any person who was in physical contact with an Ebola patient. This means anyone who cared for the sick person, washed their clothing or bedding, slept in the same bed, or washed or touched the body of a person who died from Ebola.

All contacts should be followed by the contact tracing team who check to ensure that none of the contacts become sick. If a contact does develop Ebola symptoms, they will be sent to the treatment center to give them the best chance to survive. This also helps prevent the virus from spreading to other family members. 

Is there any hostility to aid or health workers entering local communities?

People are of course scared and we are doing what we can to alleviate this fear. My colleagues on the front line tell me that people are not seeking help if they suspect they have contracted the disease with many individuals and families fleeing their homes, in order not to be taken to the treatment centres. The high death rates associated with Ebola create fear and lack of faith in the medical system.

An Ebola centre was looted – how can this be prevented in future?

This shows the level of mistrust and misinformation about Ebola. People are very scared of this virus and sadly, sometimes don’t trust official information. That’s why we work with local trusted volunteers to help educate people in a language they understand. 

Some people don’t believe Ebola is a real virus. Many people are consulting traditional healers and/or are claiming it is caused by witchcraft. ActionAid is working hard to help tackle this misinformation and provide people with the right information to protect themselves from getting Ebola and seek help if they think they have it. Communication is key to ensuring everyone knows what’s going on and why. 

In the UK you can help tackle Ebola by donating to our work.

Find out more about Ebola:

Today is a day of prayer in Gaza, but the streets are still very busy with people out trying to stock up on food and water and to see if they can salvage anything from their damaged homes.

Our staff is still working to get supplies to the 3,570 displaced people we are supporting.

One of them is Mahmoud Zeed Alkfarna, 34, who is staying in a school building with his two young children after their house in Bait Hanoun was destroyed.

Mahmoud’s cousin was still in the house when it was hit by a rocket. As his cousin lay waiting for medical assistance, the ambulance that was coming to take him to hospital for emergency treatment, was also hit by rocket fire. As a consequence, Mahmoud’s cousin died, along with his young son.

Mahmoud lost everything he owned and was left with only the clothes on his back.

ActionAid has given Mahmoud a voucher equivalent to around $300 (£180) which has enabled him to purchase not only food, but also other essential kitchen items and toiletries. Mahmoud was happy because he was also able to buy his children a few sweets.

He said: “My children have suffered enough. I am pleased because getting them some sweets is something they can finally look forward to.” In addition to food, the ActionAid voucher meant Mahmoud could buy cutlery, herbs, oil and a small gas cooker.

No kind of life

Assad Moussa Hussein Hasheny, 52, whose house was also destroyed, is staying at his brother’s house where 32 people are living under one roof.

His children were traumatised by the attacks and are quieter than they were before. “I don’t know where we will go after this," he said. "My brother’s house is very crowded. It is no kind of life.”

ActionAid has given Assad and his family a voucher: “I don’t know what we would do without this voucher. It has been great to receive it because you can buy more than just food. Today I will buy my children some new clothes and some kitchen equipment so we do not have to share plates in my brother’s home.”

We are part of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and together we’ve launched a crisis appeal.

Further reading on Gaza:

Photos: Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures/ActionAid.

Celebrating our celebrities

Susan Alderson's picture
Susan Alderson Celebrity Co-ordinator

You might have seen some stories in the news in the last week about the findings of a recent university study which claims: ‘celebrity promotion is ineffective at raising awareness but can make stars more popular with the public'.

Actress and ActionAid child sponsor Samantha Womack takes a bike ride with children from Kannet village
Actress and ActionAid child sponsor Samantha Womack takes a bike ride with children from Kannet village
Photo: Christopher Davy/ActionAid

This raised some eyebrows here at ActionAidUK HQ as our long history of working with famous people tells a different story. We work with some incredible individuals who use their fame to help us fight poverty all over the world. They do this because they believe in ActionAid and our work and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Familiarity breeds donations

Working with some of the UK’s best known faces helps us to fundraise for our work with the world’s poorest communities. The last week has been no exception as we teamed up with other charities to raise funds for the Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal for Gaza. When the appeal launched, our celebrity supporters rallied round in force, both with personal donations and support on social media. So far the appeal has raised £9.5 million.

We find working with famous folk helps us reach more people, their passion and enthusiasm for our work is infectious and the best advert we could hope for. By openly supporting ActionAid they are telling their fans they can trust us, making them more likely to engage with us in future.

Not just pretty faces

Our celebrity ambassadors don't just talk about us, they really get involved. In 2012 we took the actress Samantha Womack to visit to our work in Myanmar. After her trip we signed up over 2,000 new child sponsors for children desperately in need. Samantha also sponsors a girl from the region and finds the relationship hugely rewarding.

Earlier this year our super supporter, actor James Purefoy lived below the line for ActionAid, spending 5 days living on no more than £1 a day. He raised over £2,000 in sponsorship and took to twitter to talk to his followers and ours about his experience.

Twitter talk saves lives

James isn't the only one of our celebrity friends to support us on social media. Hardeep Singh Kohli, Fay Ripley, Josie Lawrence and Stephen Merchant are among our stalwart twitterati, sharing our campaigns with their followers and getting involved with personal messages.

When Stephen Fry, the uncrowned king of the internet, tweeted his support for our SheCAN appeal to his 7 million followers, we were over the moon. Not only did it cause a marvellous upsurge in visits to our website, crucially we also saw an increase in donations to help women and girls break the cycle of poverty.

Building trust

There is no doubt that many people support charities because they have personal connections in their lives and families which make specific causes important. But consider, we invite celebrities into our living rooms, we catch up with their news every day on social media – now more than ever people have the opportunity to feel close to their idols.

A recommendation from a trusted face can go a long way and we are excited about continuing to work with so many wonderful people.

As reports of renewed violence in Gaza reach the UK, ActionAid along with other Disaster Emergency Committee agencies continues to find ways to provide whatever help we can. Yesterday I spoke with Yasser Juma’ Mahmood Toshtash, who is coordinating ActionAid's emergency response inside Gaza.

Homes, streets and shops in Gaza have been destroyed.
The scale of destruction in Gaza
Photo: ActionAid

What can you tell me about life in Gaza at the moment?

Gaza has lost everything. Everything is completely destroyed. It is hell here. People have been killed on the street. Ambulances and fire trucks have been attacked. People could not even get assistance, to stop their bleeding.

The ceasefire started three days ago and we’ve been finding 10 to 20 dead people a day since then under the rubble. That includes bodies from a month ago. People are still searching for their loved ones under the rubble - their sons, daughters, wives, husbands and relatives.

When the planes attacked the cemetery, there were bodies flying over the roofs of the houses surrounding the cemetery. You can’t imagine the situation here. You can’t smell the situation here. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe.

How many people have lost their homes?

There are 187,000 people now living inside UN shelters and schools and other locations in Gaza. So many people are homeless. Imagine what it must be like if you work all your life to build a house for your children and suddenly you are living under a tent with no water, not enough food and no income for your family.

What infrastructure is left?

The water pumps have been destroyed and with it water supplies to houses. 80% of Gaza’s electricity has been destroyed and the main power station in the centre of Gaza has been destroyed.

How are children coping?

Children here are so traumatised. My own children are traumatised. They shout and cry when they hear the planes in the sky. Schools are due to reopen on 24th August, but I don’t know whether this will happen. 150 schools have been damaged.

We need psychosocial intervention, especially therapy for the children. We need playgrounds for our children to start tackling the trauma they’ve faced during this catastrophe.

How is ActionAid helping?

ActionAid has joined up with more than three partners – local organisations – in around five locations in the Gaza strip. For example we're partnering with the Union of HealthCare Committees, through which we’ll help 500-600 people immediately.

We will be working with two churches in Gaza which have been sheltering women and children from Shejaya on the eastern border of the Gaza strip. There were 80,000 people living there and it’s been destroyed in the past two weeks from airstrikes, drone planes and tanks.

Women from local families will be registered with us to receive supermarket vouchers that they can spend on food and essential non-food items like soap, disinfectant and blankets. This is our preferred way of distributing aid because it helps people keep their dignity and ensures they receive precisely what they need. Plus it supports the local economy. They can buy anything except cigarettes, mobile phones, or cash.

We will be sending a message through our partners to the people of Gaza that they are not alone and ActionAid is here to help them.

What are you most afraid of at the moment?

Like many people I’m most worried about the future of my children. I am a father and I want my children to grow up in peace, knowing they have no enemies. I want my children to go to university and have a guaranteed future.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope that this bloodshed will stop as soon as possible. We are all praying to God to stop this bloodshed. We want to live in peace. We want to reopen our borders.

I am hoping for an international peace conference. The vast majority of people killed and affected here are civilians. So civil society is inviting international committees and human rights organisations to investigate on the ground.

I hope the world will stop investing its millions in weapons and destroying humanity and start spending it on developing our country.

Scale of the destruction:

  • 10,770 families' (approximately 64,650 individuals) homes have been totally destroyed or heavily damaged.
  • 1,843 Palestinian people have been killed, including at least 1,354 civilians, of whom 415 are children and 214 are women.
  • Thousands of people are injured and being cared for in five or six hospitals in Gaza.
  • There are severe shortages with medical supplies especially disposables.

ActionAid is part of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and together we’ve launched a crisis appeal.

Further reading on Gaza:

The last couple of weeks have seen some huge developments in the campaign to end female foeticide in India (the practice of aborting baby girls because of the huge desire to have sons).

The Beti Utsav festivities celebrate the birth of girls in India
Photo: ActionAid

India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi spoke out strongly against the practice, saying it was a “mental illness” affecting the whole country and saying that doctors who carried out sex-selective tests and abortions were betraying society.

He said: "We cannot call ourselves citizens of the 21st century by practicing such a crime and we by our mindsets belong to the 18th century, when daughters were killed soon after they were born." He was launching a scheme for bank accounts for girls, to encourage people to see that having girls is a good thing.

Strong words from world leaders

Also this week US President Barack Obama visited India and in a speech talked about the importance of empowering women. He said: “We know from experience that nations are more successful when their women are successful… these are facts. So if nations really want to succeed in today’s global economy, they can’t simply ignore the talents of half of their people.”

So strong words from world leaders which are an amazing boost to the campaign to stop girls being aborted - although there is still a long, long way to go.

Millions of missing women

There are 60 million missing women in India – 7,000 go missing each and every day. It’s hard to take in that statistic, because that’s the number of girls being aborted before they are even born, according to estimates by experts. Female foeticide – the practice of aborting girls – is widespread in India: the 2011 census revealed there were only 919 girls to every 1,000 boys.

The reasons for this are complex, but essentially it is because girls are seen as a burden to families. In India girls will marry and move to their husband’s home so parents with only girls will be left with no one to look after them in their old age – a real fear in a country where there is no welfare or state pension system.

Aborting girls is widespread

That's why 31-year-old Shabana, who I met in New Delhi earlier this year, who already had one daughter, was put under pressure by her husband’s family to abort her baby girl.

“They took me to the clinic to have it done but when I was there I went to the toilet and I felt the baby move for the first time,” she said. “I felt so angry with myself that I was going to abort the baby inside me. I stayed in the toilet for 45 minutes – I didn’t know what to do but I didn’t want to have the abortion.”

Shabana escaped from the clinic, but she was in tears as she explained that when her husband found out she’d given birth to another daughter, he left her and she has never seen or heard from him since. “I am dead to him,” she said simply. She is bringing up her two daughters alone and can only just about make ends meet.

Conviction rates exist but are very low

Young children holding a banners that says "Give your daughter love and affection" ; " I want to study, go forward in life" and ''Boy and girl are equal, this is the message of our campaign"Girls and boys campaign together for equality

When that is the kind of pressure that women face, it is no wonder that so many girls are missing. India has laws in place against sex selective ultrasound tests and aborting girls, however conviction rates are very low.

ActionAid India works to make sure the laws are enforced, but is also trying to change entrenched attitudes with an innovative project across 12 areas of Delhi called the “Beti Utsav” which means "Celebration of Daughters".

Celebrating girls’ lives makes a big difference

Dancing during a Beti Utsav celebration in Bhalswa, New DelhiDancing is part of celebrating girls' lives

ActionAid staff and volunteers go to the homes of families where a girl has just been born and throw a party. They sing in the streets outside, bang drums and distribute special sweets. These celebrations are normal for the birth of a boy, but very unusual for a girl.

Smita Khanijow, from ActionAid India, told me that the Beti Utsav celebrations have really succeeded in changing people’s minds about having a baby girl.

“When we have held these celebrations and congratulated the new mothers they have thanked us for having broken the ice in their families.

"They have shared how we were the first in months to congratulate them and say a few kind words on the birth of a daughter. These gestures go a long way for them as they get social acceptance within their families and society.


This blog was updated on 29 January 2015.