Heroes of Humanity – Sierra Leone – Dr Sheik Umar Khan
Sierra Leone will always hold a special place in the annals of the Society of African Missions [SMA]. It was here, in 1858, that our first missionaries breathed their last. On 25 June of the following year our founder, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, died from Yellow Fever six weeks after landing in Freetown.
The Yellow Fever disease might well have wiped out our Society before it got off the ground; but from those early seeds a great mission grew throughout Africa, and continues today, echoing the promise of Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
In 2014, several countries in West Africa, including Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, were hit unexpectedly by an outbreak of Ebola for which there is no known cure. It spread rapidly throughout communities and required the speedy intervention of national governments, international NGOs and the World Health Organization to contain the virus and to stop it from spreading. It was the largest outbreak of the virus since it was first discovered in 1976. The fatality rate was over 45% of those infected, and caused great fear across the region. The World Health Organization reported 2,544 fatalities in Guinea, 4,810 in Liberia and 3,956 in Sierra Leone, before the virus was eventually brought under control.
Dr Sheik Umar Khan
Amongst those to die was Dr Sheik Umar Khan, a doctor who championed the fight to contain the Ebola outbreak.
When asked if he was afraid for his life because he was the arrowhead in Sierra Leone’s fight against Ebola he answered:
“Yes, of course, I am afraid for my life because I cherish my life. And if you are afraid of Ebola you will take the maximum precautions. You have to be vigilant, keep up your guard and make sure we all adhere to the universal precautions.”
Dr Khan was a medical scientist and part of a team that performed the first genetic sequencing studies of the virus in Sierra Leone. He was the lead physician at Sierra Leone’s Kenema Government Hospital, 300 kilometers east of the capital, Freetown, and consultant to the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). He specialized in studying Lassa, another potentially fatal viral disease, until the hospital was overwhelmed by people with Ebola.
His brilliance was noted in the international medical community and he turned down invitations to leave Sierra Leone for more lucrative opportunities abroad, preferring to remain close to his people.
Those who knew Dr Khan testified that he believed that medical research and medicine should serve everyone — not just those able to access and afford it — and he had turned down offers to make more money working in the capital, Freetown, to stay in the underserved rural region of Kenema.
In July 2014 Dr Khan complained of what was thought to be a common cold but later proved to be the Ebola virus. He was admitted for treatment at the Ebola Treatment Centre in Kailahun, one week after he was diagnosed with the disease.
Doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) who were treating him had hoped he would recover, reporting that he had showed signs of improving health.
When news of his illness was announced, medical staff at Kenema General worried that his death might spark civil unrest. Upon hearing that Dr Khan was ill, the Sierra Leone Health Minister, Miatta Kargbo, called him “a national hero”.
Dr Sheik Umar Khan died on 29 July 2014, a week after being diagnosed. He was 39 years of age. News of his death was greeted as a national tragedy.
As with the death of the SMAs pioneering missionaries to Sierra Leone, the spirit of sacrifice and compassion so evident in the life of Sheik Umar Khan gave birth to a new determination to succeed. One of his colleagues, Dr Oliver Johnson, told the BBC of the devastation felt by the medical community.
“One member of staff,” Dr Johnson revealed, “said… ‘we need to take this response to a new level… out of
respect for Dr Khan’s sacrifice, I am going to step up my own role in the Ebola response… ’”
“Because of his prominence,” Dr. Johnson said, “… it might prove to be a turning point in the Ebola response, and I hope that will be something out of the sad event of his death.”
The day after Dr Khan’s death, the Sierra Express Media published an extraordinary commentary from a contributor, M C Bah, a Sierra Leonean living in Atlanta, Georgia, who knew him. Bah wrote:
“… Dr. Sheik Omar Khan may not have come from Bethlehem in Palestine or Mecca in Saudi Arabia; but he left an indelible message of human compassion, a unique character of self-sacrifice and what it means to serve humanity even if it means losing your “cherished life” as he once mentioned to reporters…
… Dr Khan is to the fight against Ebola Virus in Sierra Leone as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was to the struggle against racial inequality and social injustice in America. Both men were anointed by God to take on an impossible task of changing the world and serving mankind. Both men did not pass the age of 39 years old…”
Dr Sheik Omar Khan is, indeed, an African Hero of Humanity. You can read the full tribute published in the Sierra Express Media here