Did you know Orlando Bloom has been working with UNICEF for over seven years? The star was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador in 2009. So not only is he gorgeous and talented, but he's also a humanitarian.
The first time he traveled with UNICEF was to Nepal back in 2007 where he visited the remote western districts of Kaski and Chitwan, two of the poorest areas of Nepal. Of the experience, Orlando tells E! News, "I was able to see how UNICEF supported education programs, water and sanitation programs and how they're making a real difference in their lives."
"I admire the work UNICEF does, as it focuses not just on addressing the immediate needs of children and their families but also focuses on finding longer-term, sustainable solutions", he said of his partnership with the organization.
Orlando visited Liberia with UNICEF a few weeks ago to help in the fight against Ebola, and we wanted to know everything about his trip. Thankfully, he was happy to oblige.
Had you been before? Who did you go with? Were you scared?
This was my first trip to Liberia. UNICEF invited me to observe the life-saving efforts led by local communities to tackle the Ebola virus. It is truly a remarkable example of how mobilizing young people and community leaders can control the spread of an epidemic.
Liberia had gone over two weeks with no new confirmed cases, so I wasn't scared. Once I was there I saw all the precautions in place. For example, we weren't allowed to enter any building—schools, health centers, government buildings, even my hotel—without washing our hands in chlorinated water and getting our temperature taken. During the drives to rural areas, there are checkpoints along the roads where the same protocols are in place, hand washing and temperature taking.
There is an unofficial—but actually everyone does it—no touch policy. No hugs, no handshakes—instead, everyone greets each other with an elbow bump.
How have the communities been impacted by the epidemic?
Everyone I met experienced loss of a friend or family member. For instance, I visited the community of Jene Wonde which lost 40 people to Ebola. I met a young man there, Ansu, who was a father, 30 years old. He lost his wife, two daughters and infant son due to Ebola, as well as his wife's parents, brother and sister. Ansu's only surviving child, his son, Abraham, is 6 years old, he was able to beat Ebola. Basically, he lost the majority of his immediate and extended family in the space of just over three months. I have so much respect for Ansu, whose whole life was turned upside-down and yet he has stepped up to take care of his son and to ensure he goes to school. I can't even imagine being in his shoes. He needs time, he needs support from his community, but it is remarkable to see his resilience and strength of character. Hard to forget.
What was particularly memorable for you?
Trying on the Personal Protective Equipment—or PPE as it is more commonly called—which is what the health care workers have to wear to deal with Ebola patients. There is a whole regiment of putting it on and taking it off so that you aren't infected with the virus during the process. First you put on the boots, and then you put on your first pair of gloves, then the zip-up white jumpsuit. The next thing to put on is a light hood to keep your hair in place. Then you put on another hood, which is attached to the jumpsuit. Next are the mouth and nose masks, then goggles, and then another hood to make sure there are no openings between the goggles and the hood. You then put on a second pair of gloves and at last an apron. It's impossible to see who is in the suit, so they write your name on the apron. On your shoulder they write the time for when you are fully dressed because you shouldn't be in the suit too long. There is a buddy system in place to put the whole suit on to ensure everything sits in the right place and that there are no gaps where the virus can enter.
I can honestly say that once I had it on, it was definitely one of the more claustrophobic and uncomfortable experiences I've had. It is extremely hot in Liberia, and those suits are not made of a breathable fabric. I was in the PPE for three minutes max and I was really uncomfortable, sweating, actually drenched in sweat. To imagine the health care workers are in these PPEs for over an hour—and sometimes longer—caring for these incredibly sick people is just phenomenal. So many of them lost their lives, so many of them were exposed to Ebola. And they all witnessed such tragic circumstances each and every day. They are true heroes!
What were some of the local efforts? How has this fight changed the lives of the people you met?
Community leaders educated their neighbors on Ebola and how to stay safe. Communities formed taskforces. Young people got involved. Everyone came together to help spread the word about how to stay safe. In order to eradicate Ebola, behavior change is key, so Liberians were encouraged to wash their hands, stop touching and caring for sick people and instead call an ambulance, seek help if having symptoms and stop washing and burying dead bodies, a very common burial custom in Liberia, in order to stop transmission of the virus.
The people I met are resilient and determined to stop the spread of Ebola. For example, I visited West Point in Monrovia—a densely populated slum with a population of approximately 65,000 people—half of which are under the age of 18.
Just before the Ebola outbreak, a livelihoods skills development program for girls, called A LIFE (Adolescents Leading an Intensive Fight Against Ebola) was set to start. Due to Ebola the program was put on hold. Then, when West Point was quarantined because of the severity of the Ebola outbreak, UNICEF organized an orientation for 500 girls as part of the A LIFE program, specifically around Ebola prevention.
A week later UNICEF found that the girls were sharing what they had learned within the community. The girls took the matter into their own hands, and many boys joined too. They were provided with protective gear (rain boots, coats, hand sanitizers and thermometers) as well as snacks and stipends and educated the community around them about how to prevent Ebola. They set up hand washing stations everywhere, they informed people who to contact if they felt someone was sick. They are still doing this, and they invited me to join them. I was honored to witness their amazing work.
What's the next step?
Even though Liberia is almost down to zero cases, you can't consider the virus eradicated until there are no cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea, Liberia's neighboring countries, which have very porous borders, So there is more work to do! They still have some way to go to get to the same level of progress as Liberia.
But UNICEF is there for the long term. They were there before Ebola and we will stay for many years to come. Beating the epidemic is one thing, more funding, and continued support are required to ensure that Liberia is able to rebuild a more responsive health system in order to ensure a stronger, safer future for Liberia's children.
To help in this fight, you can donate to UNICEF—every dollar counts!