While Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today, Dr. David Austin is on his way to Liberia on an 18-week pilgrimage to save the lives of people suffering from the Ebola virus.

Austin, 60, of Springvale, is making his fourth humanitarian trip to Africa – in the past six years he’s treated patients in Sudan, Congo and Djibouti.

“Once you’ve done this, it’s overwhelmingly compelling,” said Austin, a physician at Nasson Health Center. “It’s addictive in a positive way. The African people are very kind and generous, even though they have meager resources.”

Austin said that since his 20s, he’s always wanted to treat patients in Africa, but he waited until his children were adults because the work is time-consuming. He’s typically in Africa for three to four months at a time.

During Austin’s other trips, he went courtesy of the nonprofit aid organization Doctors Without Borders. For his visit to Liberia, he is volunteering through the AmeriCares disaster relief program.

Although Ebola poses a different medical challenge than his other visits, Austin said the treatments are remarkably similar. In the other African countries, he would often see patients with common infectious diseases such as dysentery and malaria.


“What they need is clean water, IV fluids and antibiotics,” said Austin, explaining that it will be much the same when treating Ebola. “The treatments are simple, but effective. We were seeing 100 kids per month, and usually 96 of them we would send home. Ninety-six percent would leave here smiling toddlers or 4-year-olds. It was a great feeling.”

Ebola has killed about 5,000 in West Africa, mostly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Austin said he will have to wear a hazardous materials suit to protect him from getting infected in Liberia. Two people have died in the U.S. from Ebola, but the disease has not spread here.

Because Ebola is not an airborne disease and can only be contracted through contact with bodily fluids, a U.S. outbreak is unlikely, public health experts have said. The country also has superior public health infrastructure and access to proper sanitation.

A nurse in Fort Kent made national news this fall when she returned to Maine after volunteering in Sierra Leone, showing no symptoms of Ebola. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention tried to place her under a mandatory quarantine, but a judge sided with the nurse.

Austin said that before returning to the U.S. from Liberia, he will be quarantined in Europe for three weeks – the Ebola incubation period – as will all of the AmeriCares volunteers. Catherine Sargent, one of Austin’s patients, said he’s an excellent doctor, and she has admired his volunteer efforts.

“I’m impressed because it takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing,” Sargent said.

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