When I left Liberia just two weeks ago, the country had settled into a calm after being officially declared Ebola-free by the WHO on May 9. Those I met were optimistic about the country’s future and thankful to have been spared from the epidemic.
On Tuesday, the news of new Ebola cases in Liberia shattered the calm.
In the 53 days since achieving infection-free status, Liberia’s environment has changed dramatically. All but a few Ebola treatment units (ETUs) are in the process of being decommissioned, many organizations have reorganized their aid efforts, and international flights into the country are becoming more and more regular. For the most part people move about Monrovia and other areas without fear. In many ways, life in Liberia had begun to feel more normal.
Despite such normalcy, Liberians—in particular health workers—had learned the lessons from the devastating outbreak all too well. Many watched patients and co-workers die, and have lived and worked, for many months, in fear of contracting the disease themselves. Since January, JSI has been implementing a program to further the emergency training health workers received during the crisis to prevent infection. The Liberia Infection and Prevention Control Activity, funded by USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, is providing equipment and training health workers across the country so they are better prepared to manage patients—even those with Ebola—without spreading infection. With the re-emergence of Ebola cases, their understanding and adherence to these protocols will be tested.
Ebola’s return to Liberia will re-awaken the fear many communities experienced just a few months ago. This fear is strongly felt among all health workers, who are often the most vulnerable to infection. While in Liberia, I met many nurses, doctors, and other health staff — including those at JSI Liberia — who have lost friends, families, and co-workers in the outbreak, yet are still willing to put themselves at risk to treat those in need. Many said that their desire to serve came directly from their loss — that it emboldened them and strengthened their resolve to eradicate Ebola.
While we don’t yet know how the new infections will affect Liberia, JSI remains committed to working alongside Liberians to prevent the disease from spreading. Working hand-in-hand with Liberia’s Ministry of Health, we will continue to mentor health workers and supervise the use of IPC materials like personal protective equipment (PPE) and chlorine in 8 counties, as well as continue to deliver supplies to clinics in all 15 counties. Starting today, our team will join other members of the MOH-led IPC task force in intensive training, mentoring and supply provision at key health facilities in Margibi county, which will continue to be at heightened risk in the coming weeks due to proximity to the new confirmed Ebola case in the county. Our goal is to keep health workers safe so that they can continue serving, no matter the number of infections they encounter.
The future may be uncertain, but the best methods to stop new Ebola infections are not. By staying vigilant and relying on what we’ve learned thus far about treating and preventing Ebola, Liberia can again become infection free.