Block By Block, Health Workers Lead Liberia To Victory Over Ebola
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Ebola outbreak in Liberia is officially over today. The World Health Organization says human-to-human transmission of the virus has come to a complete halt. Liberia has not reported a single case of the disease since the end of March. Neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea both continue to report a few new cases and are at least weeks, perhaps months, away from making a similar announcement. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that much of the credit for defeating Ebola in Liberia is going to community volunteers who went door-to-door to try to stop the virus from spreading.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: During the darkest days of the epidemic, the West Point slum in Monrovia became a battleground over Ebola. In August of last year, as people were dying in the streets from the disease, residents of West Point trashed a shelter for people infected with the virus. The government responded by slapping a quarantine on the entire township. Riots ensued, but in the background there was still a deadly epidemic to fight. Jescina Washington was working in West Point as a community health volunteer. She was trying to educate people on Ebola prevention.
JESCINA WASHINGTON: It was too difficult. Trying to talk to the people, some would tell you Ebola is not real. Some would tell you Ebola is not in Liberia.
BEAUBIEN: She says people denied that Ebola even existed. They accused her and other health care workers of making people sick to attract international aid money. People threw dirty water at them. But Washington and an army of volunteers kept pounding on doors, warning people not to touch sick relatives, not to bury anyone who suddenly died and to seek treatment immediately if they started to get sick. At first, the messages fell on deaf ears, not just in West Point but across the region. The virus continued to spread. In September, Liberia was logging more than 300 new cases a week. And then things started to change.
HASSAN NEWLAND: Their communities were the heroes in this fight because they took on Ebola and decided enough was enough.
BEAUBIEN: Hassan Newland was in charge of mobilizing communities for UNICEF in Monrovia at the time. He says the key to turning the corner on the outbreak in the Liberian capital was neighborhood groups that took on the disease block-by-block, house-by-house.
NEWLAND: They were locating the sicknesses themselves and they were reporting the cases themselves, and so they decided to get involved. We started to defeat Ebola.
BEAUBIEN: A lot of other things happened too at that time. More Ebola treatment units were built. U.S. military sent in mobile labs to quickly diagnose cases, shipments of protective clothing and gloves started to flow in. More international medical teams arrived. But all of that would've been wasted if the number of cases just kept going up exponentially. Mohammed Sankoh, the medical director of Redemption Hospital, says the key to stopping transmission of Ebola in Liberia was changing people's minds and getting them to protect themselves from the virus.
MOHAMMED SANKOH: Today they believe that Ebola is a disease that kills.
BEAUBIEN: He says after people's behavior changed, transmission slowed, making it much easier for the community volunteers who were tracking down potential Ebola cases and getting them into treatment if they started to get sick. The elimination of Ebola, Sankoh says, took a lot of hard work by brave health care workers and international disease experts but ultimately, this was a victory by the Liberian people. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.