SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.
We always knew that Ebola would come to Liberia. For us it was just a matter of when. As the current outbreak erupted in Guinea this past winter, we braced for an incoming epidemic. People travel between our two countries daily. We started to stock up on needed personal protective equipment and quietly disseminated information about how to handle Ebola cases.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were not prepared. We did not expect the sheer scale of the outbreak, which was unprecedented anywhere.
As of August 2, in Liberia we have had 471 reported cases of Ebola with 132 confirmed by laboratory testing. Already, a reported 257 patients have died. This virus has a high fatality rate, killing about 60 percent of those infected. The toll has been felt throughout west Africa. Yet this is not just an African problem. Ebola is a serious global public health emergency that requires international attention. Now that Ebola can travel on airplanes, it knows no borders. Many airlines have stopped running flights to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, but this is not the solution. We need concerted efforts to address this global scourge. The international community needs to mobilize medical staff who specialize in Ebola management to help us trace potentially infected people and get ill patients into isolation.
Even before the epidemic our country faced constraints and shortages in the health system. This crisis has only exacerbated those constraints. For example, we were—and are—dealing with a shortage of qualified health workers, medical supplies and money. It has been just as problematic, if not more so, that we have not been able to quickly spread correct health information. In such conditions rumors can spread like wildfire, fueling fears in communities who try to drive off health care workers and prevent them from isolating sick patients. Now we are trying to assuage those fears so health personnel can do their jobs.
Close family members and health workers are known to be at the highest risk of contracting Ebola, and this is what we have seen in Liberia. Sixty of our health care workers have contracted the disease; 35 have died. To stop this epidemic we have mobilized the entire Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, alongside other national ministries, partners and communities. We must care for every Ebola patient and trace every contact to quash the outbreak—that could take months.
The cooperation of the public is essential, but in certain communities village members distrust ministry officials and health personnel alike. Family members are reluctant to send loved ones to isolation wards when they hear that other patients have not returned. And in a country where burial by family and friends is so important, telling people they cannot bury their dead—that instead health workers in full protective gear must do that—understandably makes people upset and frustrated. Our public information campaigns are helping spread the word about who is at risk from Ebola and where to seek help. Yet progress has been slow.
The U.S., along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme, Doctors Without Borders and Samaritan’s Purse are helping to support the efforts of the Liberian government. Aid has come in the form of personnel, drugs, medical supplies for hydration and pain treatment, and personal protective equipment for health workers. Still, we require continued international support.
Even wealthy countries cannot stop public health threats without the cooperation of their people. To get that support, we must show communities that we are helping patients. Accordingly, Liberia is committed to do its part to bring the Ebola outbreak to an end as soon as possible. Please join us.