For pilots from a Nampa nonprofit working amid the Ebola outbreak in central Africa, the most lethal threat isn’t always the disease.
The Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots , who train in Idaho’s mountain and desert landscapes, are putting themselves and their families in danger of contracting Ebola as they insert themselves into a region consumed by militia conflict.
Violence has made the health crisis even more difficult. The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second most deadly in history, after the one that claimed over 11,000 lives in West Africa from 2014 to 2016. Ebola, named for a river in the Congo, is a virus in sub-Saharan Africa contracted by direct contact with infected people or animals. As of Feb. 6, the World Health Organization has reported 791 cases and 492 deaths since August.
Even as an experimental vaccine shows promise, violent civil uprisings and armed rival groups are frustrating efforts to combat the disease. It’s no longer a question of how to prevent Ebola, but how to get vaccines to vulnerable populations.
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Every hour matters. The vaccines come packaged in dry ice, which keeps the virus active and alive until it reaches the patient. When the dry ice is no longer effective — which doesn’t take long in the Congolese humidity — the vaccines can expire.
Right now, WHO can transport vaccines as far as Goma, a city of 1 million near Congo’s border with Rwanda. Getting it from there to villages is the problem. Even without conflict, it could take a driver 13 hours to deliver vaccines to some of the most isolated towns. Factor in the roundabout routes taken to avoid gunfire, and the journey turns into days.
Flying the vaccines can shorten the trip to just over an hour. That’s why WHO began working with pilots from Mission Aviation Fellowship in December. The Christian ministry charges a reduced price for flights to remote areas from bases around the world.
MAF was founded after World War II by a few wartime pilots in the U.S. and United Kingdom. It moved its U.S. headquarters from Redlands, California, to Nampa in 2006 to take advantage of Idaho’s lower costs of living and doing business. Its pilot missionaries are volunteers from the U.S and abroad, though the organization employs people in Nampa and locally in nations where it works. Of MAF’s 635 employees, about half are based in Nampa.
Four missionaries and their families live on the MAF base in the 20,000-person village of Nyankunde (pronounced nee-ahn-KOON-dee), MAF’s base in eastern Congo since 1967. In the last two months, WHO and other nongovernmental and religious organizations have used MAF’s three planes there to fly out 93 health workers and 2,700 pounds of vaccines.
“Where we are, there’s very little aviation,” said David Petersen, MAF’s director of operations in eastern Congo, in a phone interview from Nyankunde. Few for-profit companies have the capability to fly in the area or approval from the Congolese government.
There are no landing strips for larger cargo planes. MAF works with communities to clear brush and debris to make way for long, dirt runways, sometimes carved into mountainsides.
The people who need vaccines have become wary of foreign aid workers after years of tribal conflicts. Their suspicion has hindered some efforts to bring clinics and medical supplies to their villages, the New York Times reported.
“The challenges that have come with fighting Ebola are due to isolation,” Petersen said.
Just four days after MAF pilots began working with WHO from their base in Nyankunde, they learned that a villager there had become infected. MAF interrupted its operations to fly pilots and their families to another MAF base across the border in western Uganda. Pilots returned to Nyankunde in late January after the village was cleared of the disease.
It takes anywhere from two to 21 days for an infected person to see symptoms for the virus, according to WHO. Ebola victims start to first feel the sweats and body aches, then are overcome by vomiting and uncontrollable diarrhea. About half of those who become infected die.
Petersen said he has felt at home in Nyankunde since he arrived in 2015. The son of missionary parents, he was raised in Africa. But Nyankunde wasn’t always peaceful. In 2002, soldiers raided it and killed about 1,500 people, including hospital patients, making it the deadliest massacre of the Second Congo war, which lasted from 1998 to 2003. MAF missionaries were forced to evacuate the 10 homes, two hangars and a small schoolhouse on the base.
In 2005, a few MAF employees returned with a crew of Congolese workers to restore the abandoned air strip. It wasn’t until 2013 that MAF let pilots return, including some who had been there during the massacre. Petersen joined soon after with his wife and son, now 4. He is with his family by night, but by day he could be flying to any number of villages in eastern Congo.
MAF offers its services to governments and other relief groups like Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief group that built the village’s hospital. In January, Petersen flew the Congolese health minister to visit an isolated village where the government was setting up new health clinics.
Petersen has also flown bodies of the dead back to their families. Congo culture requires that deceased people be buried where they were born, he said.
He will serve two more years in Nyankunde on his mission. Typically, MAF missionaries serve four-year terms, with three and a half years overseas and a six-month break back in the United States. During the break, MAF offers a missionary family one of 15 apartments on its campus at 112 N. Pilatus Lane, near the Nampa Municipal Airport.
MAF has a budget of $41 million, and nearly two-thirds of that goes toward its aviation ministries. The rest goes to fundraising, administrative expenses and in-house technology created by MAF. David Holsten, MAF’s president and CEO, said the expenses reflect the high cost of air travel.
Nearly three quarters of MAF’s $43 million in revenues in 2017 came from donations, with the remaining quarter comes from program revenues — the fees that MAF charges clients for flights. Holsten said charges are lower than those of other private airlines. Missionaries also fund their own overseas terms by soliciting donations.
Airplanes and backup funds for emergencies are paid for by large donors, including “government entities,” Holsten said. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, for example, awarded MAF $2.5 million for aiding in helicopter rescues during the 2015 Nepal earthquake, which killed nearly 9,000 people.
In emergencies, Nampa staffers can be deployed within 24 hours anywhere across the world. John Woodberry manages MAF’s global response team, which heads to site of emergencies and natural disasters in remote areas when they break. A closet next to Woodberry’s workstation contains bins with sleeping bags, satellite phones, first-aid kits and energy bars. They have fueled emergency trips to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Typhoon Mangkhut in the Philippines, to name a few.
Their work in disaster areas is motivated by their faith, Woodberry said, but MAF’s mission is to aid any group “doing good humanitarian work” in isolated areas.
“We want to help transform people physically but also spiritually,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year David Petersen arrived in Nyankunde. It was 2015.