In 2014, while working for UNICEF, Vandana was positioned in Sierra Leone's Ebola ‘red zone’ to help fight the biggest health crisis on the planet at the time. The response team were called ‘The Ebola Fighters’ and they were awarded collectively TIME person of the year for their efforts.
“I had just completed my tenure in South Sudan, establishing community based screening for severely malnourished children, and I was preparing to return home to India when I was informed that I had been chosen to go to the Ebola ‘red zone’ in Sierra Leone.”
It was July 2014 when WHO finally declared the deadly disease outbreak in the area as Ebola. By the time Vandana arrived in the ‘red zone’, the infection rate was 100 percent, with the death rate among health workers at 90 percent. She lost two of her co-workers during the early response period.
“You cannot take 4 months to declare a disease because people become careless and that message spreads much faster than when you try to reverse it. We drafted the message ‘Ebola is real and Ebola is here’. We used to read it 10 times in the morning. ‘It’s real and it’s here.’ UNICEF was really at the forefront”, she says.
When asked how she can bring herself to work in disaster zones, Vandana was quick to respond, “If not me, then who? Saving lives and spreading smiles are the most important things to me.”
With hard-work and grit she has made it through years of working in emergency situations and war-torn countries and she shows no signs of slowing down. She says it isn’t easy, but there’s one thing that keeps her motivated -
It’s because of the look in people’s eyes; the love in their eyes keeps you going.
Vandana’s devotion and professionalism has brought her many awards. These include the TIME person of the year 2014, awarded collectively to the Ebola Response Team, the 2014 UNICEF Global Staff award and most recently the 2018 University of Sydney Alumni Award for International Achievement.
In her view, good governance and community engagement are the most effective ways to promote health. “The best health and happiness could only be enjoyed and experienced by people if there is good governance and accountable systems in place.”
Using local wisdom and resources, Vandana believes public health professionals can create strong and sustainable community-based response systems in all areas, even after withdrawal of external aid.
Right now, Vandana is in Bhutan, working to make it the first country in the region to have zero mother-to-child transmission of HIV – an admirable goal that is within reach.
Vandana graduated from the Master of Public Health from the University of Sydney in 1999.