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STOP Spillover Country Team Lead Mildred Bembo Harris Shares Her Vision for Preventing Zoonotic Spillovers in Liberia

By Susan Babirye

USAID’s STOP Spillover operates at the local level to prevent the spillover and spread of zoonotic diseases. STOP Spillover is pleased to introduce Mildred Bembo Harris, who leads the consortium’s work in Liberia.

Ms. Harris is a public health professional and a nurse. She brings experience implementing and managing public health programs, with an emphasis on health systems strengthening, infection prevention and control, and community health. She has worked for international NGOs, the Liberian Ministry of Health, and United Nations agencies, including as a Senior Program Coordinator and Consultant for the International Rescue Committee.

In a recent interview, Ms. Harris discusses what she sees as the biggest challenges to stopping future spillovers, outbreaks, and pandemics in Liberia and across the globe. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Susan: What are your goals and aspirations for STOP Spillover in Liberia?

Mildred Bembo Harris: The STOP Spillover consortium collaborates and maintains partnerships with One Health partners and communities who have done significant work in Liberia already. We will listen to their voices in identifying our priorities and our work plans.

Our goal is to form synergies where possible and forge strong partnerships, identify gaps related to viral pathogens, and to avoid duplication in a very resource-constrained country.

Susan: What do you think are the biggest challenges to preventing spillover?

MBH: One major challenge to preventing spillover is that some communities hold on to known and established ways of life and behaviors passed down to them by their ancestors and have certain socioeconomic practices that put them in close contact with animals in risky ways. For example, people in some communities hunt, eat, or play with rodents, putting them at greater risk of zoonotic spillover.

Another challenge is related to government agencies and internal fights about who has the mandate and the expertise to put risk-reduction policies into place. There needs to be a clear process if we want to be able to act quickly to reduce spillover risks.

Susan: What impact do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the trajectory of addressing future spillovers?

MBH: Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted a great deal of attention away from other health challenges, leading to deaths of people with other illnesses who weren’t able to get the help they needed. 

Now, we’re in a “new normal,” and we need to make sure that we’re able to do multiple things at once. We need to be able to help patients with COVID and other illnesses, and we also must be able to look ahead to preventing future pandemics. We can’t just do one.

Susan: If you could have one do-over in the last five years, what would it be?

MBH: I would go back in time and tell people who were living with complications from Ebola about services that were available to help. Many people missed out on services that would have helped simply because they didn’t utilize the services. We need to do better not just on access and availability for services to help patients, but on ensuring patients understand the importance of seeking health care services.

Susan: What’s something not a lot of people know about you?

MBH: I am the fourth of ten children, and I have six children - three biological and three nieces.

Susan: Do you have a favorite book? What is it and why?

MBH: It’s a daily devotional: “Family Life” by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. It inspires me daily about how to handle every aspect of life as it unfolds.

Susan: What advice would you give to leaders around the world who want to prevent the next pandemic before it starts?

MBH: There’s no one thing that can prevent the next pandemic. We need to think about the spillover ecosystem holistically. Human health is only part of the equation. If we truly want to prevent the next pandemic, we need to take on the big drivers of risks like animal health, land use change, and climate change too.

Photo of Mildred Harris

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