When a case of polio showed up in Rockland county, just north of New York City, in July 2022, and then polioviruses…
For many years I’ve ended editions of my human genetics textbook with a request for students to email me to share their thoughts on what they’d learned. Only one student has ever contacted me.
Emmanuel Zoboi Gokpolu was in high school in Monrovia, Liberia, when he emailed me at the end of his genetics course, in 2007.
My husband Larry and I quickly developed a friendship with Eman; he calls us Mom and Dad. We sent him a package of Obama tee shirts, which he distributed to his family. Free people of color from the US founded an independent Liberia in 1847, so there was a connection.
I recognized something special in Emmanuel right away, a love of biology and a compelling interest in health care and helping people. Larry and I supported him through college and then we encouraged him to go to medical school – fulfilling a dream of mine (bad chemistry grades kept me from applying).
Med school in Liberia was going well, until Ebola struck in 2014. With half the instructors dying and classes halted, Eman led medical students in carrying out public health measures. He organized a group called “Determined Youth for Progress” to sensitize rural communities to Ebola awareness and prevention measures, sent text alerts, and did contact tracing.
He told his story during the Ebola crisis here at DNA Science, in Eman’s Emails from Liberia: Through September and then Eman Reports from Ebola Ground Zero. During that time, instead of paying his tuition, we sent support for gloves, detergent, bleach, and long sleeve shirts to keep him and his family as safe as possible.
Reading over that first post about Eman now gives me chills, in the context of COVID. Eman wrote on August 6, 2014:
“We could have done much better to stop this virus from killing so many people if not for denial that the virus exists. You won’t believe this: in the midst of all these deaths, people still doubt that this virus exists! In fact, people are blaming the West, while others say it is government propaganda. Family members and loved ones do not easily accept when their relatives are diagnosed. People consider the virus more a stigma than a sickness.
Ebola is on the rise day by day. The death toll keeps mounting.
Fear of the virus has prompted many hospital workers to abandon clinics – many are now shut. Because of this, many diseases like typhoid and malaria that are prevalent during the rainy season are untreated and there could be preventable deaths. We are living in fear.
Mom, this situation is very serious and the outside world might not know it.”
At this point I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to interest major media outlets in Eman’s reports. He responded to my failure four days later:
“Tell them that our hospitals have closed due to their inability to tackle this virus, that even our medical doctors and nurses have fallen to this virus, and that our schools are closed and we live under a state of emergency, meaning our rights are suspended. Above all, tell them that we lack the experts to conquer this virus. Make them understand that this is no fiction or fairy tale. This is reality and people are dying and desperately need help.”
Eman of course survived, but he’s no stranger, personally, to infectious disease. He once had cholera, resurging malaria, and amoebiasis at the same time. But all that activation of his innate immunity was no match for SARS-CoV-2 – this past spring he was sick for weeks and hospitalized twice with COVID, vaccination still a luxury in Kenya, where he is currently in medical school. Eman was exposed helping patients at a hospital. And he thinks he had COVID again, recently.
When Eman started med school he was drawn to surgery, but the pandemic has catalyzed an intense interest in fighting infectious diseases. His articles about COVID have appeared at Genetic Literacy Project and are also listed at muckrack.com.
Amazingly, we still haven’t met Eman. We were doing the paperwork to get him a visa to visit us in December 2019. The request was denied, and then COVID descended.
Eman is graduating from medical school very soon! In February/March of 2022. He has also recently earned an executive certificate in hospital management, and has acceptances from the Royal Tropical Institute in the Netherlands for a short course in communicable diseases and a masters program in public health, if he gets financial aid. He’s awaiting news from programs at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the Karolinska Institute, and a few others. He wants to make a difference in the world of infectious diseases and global health, and I know that he will.
But Eman needs financial help, for the next steps. If anyone out there can help, with suggestions of programs, scholarships, or funding opportunities, or financial support, to continue Eman’s education and experience, please get in touch with me, through this blog or social media.
Thank you for reading DNA Science, and a happy and healthy New Year to all! May SARS-CoV-2, our foe of exactly two years, mutate itself into extinction.