Salvaged US medical supplies help fight Ebola in Africa

Alongside the JDC, Afya founder Danielle Butin enlists local Jewish volunteers to collect and send surplus equipment to aid those facing the epidemic

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Afya founder and executive director Danielle Butin in the Serengeti. (photo credit: TJ Allan)
Afya founder and executive director Danielle Butin in the Serengeti. (photo credit: TJ Allan)

The announcement of the first Ebola cases in the United States in late September did not scare Danielle Butin. What did frighten her was the lack of medical supplies available to the healthcare professionals on the ground trying to treat the epidemic’s patients in the West African countries hardest hit by the epidemic.

As soon as she heard news of the deadly disease’s outbreak, Butin, founder and executive director of the Afya Foundation, sprung into action. Afya (which means “good health” in Swahili) is a not-for-profit organization that collects millions of pounds of surplus medical, hospital and humanitarian supplies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and delivers them to countries that desperately need them. Afya has helped bolster healthcare delivery in many countries, especially Tanzania, Ghana, Haiti and Ethiopia.

Now, with the outbreak of Ebola that has claimed more than 5,100 lives so far, Afya is targeting its aid to Sierra Leone, one of the three countries most gravely affected.

“When Ebola hit, we met as a staff to understand the vectors of the disease, and to figure out what was needed and who we could work with on the ground,” Butin told The Times of Israel.

“We realized that Sierra Leone was not getting enough attention, that it was being underserved, despite the fact that it was treating not only its own victims, but also refugees with Ebola coming over the border from Liberia,” she said.

Within a very short time of Afya’s decision to act, Citibank donated more than a million protective masks, and a New York health corporation donated protective suits, bleach, masks, gloves and generators. All together, this amounted to around $2 million in aid.

Volunteers sort medical supplies collected by Afya for treatment of Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. (photo credit: Claire Grummon)
Volunteers sort medical supplies collected by Afya for treatment of Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. (photo credit: Claire Grummon)

“We had 250 pallets of stuff and we needed a bigger warehouse than our main one in Yonkers, NY to sort and pack it all in preparation for air shipment,” said Butin. She founded Afya in 2007 after experiencing a sort of calling upon visiting Africa for the first time, something she likened to the emotion some Jews feel upon landing at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

To solve the storage problem, Butin turned to the JDC-American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a significant funder and partner of Afya. A JDC board member was happy to lend one of the warehouses belonging to his business, Hartz Mountain Industries, in Harrison, New Jersey.

“JDC has been our biggest partner in delivering supplies when disasters hit,” Butin said.

Ebola medical supplies readied for shipment at Afya's temporary warehouse in New Jersey. (Courtesy)
Ebola medical supplies readied for shipment at Afya’s temporary warehouse in New Jersey. (Courtesy)

Thanks to the help of Afya volunteers who helped sort and pack everything, a 170-pallet shipment was flown by cargo jet to Sierra Leone on October 30. Once there, it was moved by barge and truck to a warehouse and organized for distribution.

“The chief medical officer of Sierra Leone told us that the scrub suits and gloves were invaluable,” Butin reported.

“Now we just have to find a way to get the bleach (which commercial flights won’t carry) over there. For that, I’m going to use my contacts in the Department of Defense,” she said.

Butin, a 51-year-old registered occupational therapist with a Masters degree in public health, takes a holistic view of Afya’s work. She maintains a broad perspective when it comes to the materials that can help a community in need of better healthcare.

Afya means ‘good health’ in Swahili

Afya collects the huge amount of medical supplies and equipment American hospitals are forced to discard because of strict regulations. American hospitals routinely replace perfectly good supplies with new ones simply because they are newer and more technologically advanced. The hospitals are also required to get rid of any unopened or unused supplies that have been in an operating room, or that have been in a room where water has been detected.

But Afya also collects and distributes everyday items most people would not immediately associate with the practice of medicine, such as soccer balls, pens, rain boots and event tents.

The soccer balls are for children to play with as they wait for hours and days on end outside clinics where their family members are being treated.

The pens are for doctors so they can write notes in charts, thereby ensuring that proper medical records are kept for each patient.

Recently a class of b’nei mitzvah kids took it upon themselves to collect hundreds of pairs of rain boots after Butin observed a woman infected with AIDS giving birth in Malawi. The attending midwife, who wore no shoes, had infection-vulnerable opens sores on her bare feet.

Students at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY collected rain boots for Afya to distribute to Ebola healthcare workers. (Courtesy)
Students at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY collected rain boots for Afya to distribute to Ebola healthcare workers. (Courtesy)

After the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake, Butin turned to Afya’s many Jewish volunteers and supporters, asking them to donate the large tents they had used in their backyards for b’nei mitzvah parties and weddings. Afya repurposed them as field emergency and recovery rooms.

For Butin, the thousands of volunteers who help collect, sort and pack the supplies are as valuable to her organization’s mission as the actual supplies. She considers not only what the volunteers can do for Afya, but also what Afya can do for them.

Afya partners with agencies serving at-risk populations, giving them important work to do and a sense of purpose. Similarly, the organization works with retirement homes and nursing facilities where elderly can participate in a vital activity that allows them to help others.

Kids help adults keep the Ebola scare in perspective

Butin is most excited about the way in which teenagers have been able to leverage their excitement and commitment to Afya’s work to get their parents and other adults involved, as well.

“One 16-year-old girl begged for body bags from medical corporations and set up a table outside her local drugstore asking people as they went in to buy vitamins for Ebola victims and to donate them as they came out,” Butin said.

Kids help adults keep the Ebola scare in perspective.

“Families have come to volunteer at our warehouse, and there have been parents who have actually asked if anyone in it has Ebola,” Butin said.

“It’s their kids who tell them that this is not the time for hysteria. It’s the time to help the people who are really in danger.”

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