With Liberia declared Ebola-free, what’s next for West Africa?
Monday, May 18, 2015
In Monrovia, Liberia, medical facilities that once housed hundreds of patients now sit deserted. Once crucial in the fight against Ebola, some of these medical facilities face a questionable future now that Liberia has officially been declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization after 42 days of no new reported infections.
In the past year, the WHO recorded more than 4,700 deaths in Liberia in what is being hailed as the worst Ebola outbreak since the emergence of the disease in 1976. At the height of the Ebola crisis, Liberia was reporting 300 to 400 new Ebola cases every week, making it hub of the Western African outbreak that has resulted in 11,000 deaths.
At one point, every one of the 15 counties that make up Liberia had reported cases of Ebola, causing a major shortage in facilities and staff to care for the large influx of patients. To combat the shortage of beds for the sickly, the U.S. military and the Chinese helped construct 21 Ebola treatment units throughout the country.
But now there is debate among Liberian officials on what to do with the recently abandoned buildings and equipment. Some want the facilities to be reused as hospitals or to be maintained in the case of an Ebola re-emergence, while others are more cautious and believe the once-Ebola-ridden facilities should be torn down.
Dr. Michael Mawanda of the WHO believes most of the equipment from the facilities will be reused after undergoing a thorough disinfection process. Much of the equipment and many of the facilities went largely unused because they were opened after reported cases of the virus began to drop significantly. The country has ultimately decided to keep 14 out 21 facilities standing in case another outbreak occurs.
Liberians recently celebrated the end of the outbreak with a national ceremony May 11. Tolbert Nyenswah, a Liberian leader who was criticized for taking slow steps to rid the country of the virus, is celebrating the success of Liberia and publicly stated that "the same people (critics) are using us as a success story."
The White House has congratulated Liberia on their victory over the virus, but White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also cautioned that public focus should now be shifted to ending the outbreak in Sierra Leone and Guinea, countries that are still reporting new cases of Ebola. The WHO has recommended that Liberia remain cautious due to the remaining possibility of the virus being spread through sexual conduct, an infected animal or a sick traveler from a bordering nation.
The lessons learned by the Liberian government in combating the virus can be helpful to the leaders of Guinea and Sierra Leone to as they work to eliminate Ebola. Liberian health officials discovered early on that forcing health measures upon citizens led to mistrust and fear surrounding the virus.
Doctors Without Borders, a group of volunteer doctors that were on the front lines of the fight against Ebola, also made mistakes in preventing the spread of the virus. Initially, the group was focused mostly on treating the people of Guékédou Prefecture in Guinea, where Ebola was rampant, instead of preventing the spread of the virus in areas that had not yet been infected.
But the biggest challenge the doctors faced was the mistrust of healthcare workers among the community, a challenge that can only be remedied over time as people continue to face the realities of the disease and embrace the treatments being offered by healthcare professionals.
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