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Originally published Saturday, November 1, 2014 at 4:08 PM

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Guest: Rally around West African communities to fight Ebola

Support the true front lines in the fight against Ebola: the communities of West Africa, writes guest columnist Max Weihe.


Special to The Times

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THE world is gripped by Ebola, a disease that has killed at least 5,000 people in West Africa. Global attention of this scale carries enormous potential to marshal the resources needed to defeat the disease and send a clear message of hope and solidarity to the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

However, the current focus of the attention — quarantines, travel bans and other isolationist measures — undermines that potential. Before the moment is lost, the spotlight must shift to the real front line: communities in West Africa.

In Liberia, where I have been working on the International Rescue Committee’s Ebola response team since September, the disease first struck in rural Lofa County. I recently visited Lofa and its hardest-hit villages, including Foya, where the very first case was identified. The people I met were grief-stricken. One family lost 30 members in a matter of days. A small town of a few thousand people, Barkedu, has lost nearly 300 people since July.

Despite such suffering, communities are driven to put the disease behind them. Networks of volunteers are educating their neighbors about Ebola, investigating suspected cases and monitoring people they may have infected, and holding town hall meetings to encourage their neighbors to do their part in prevention. To keep the disease at bay, they are operating simple checkpoints for hand-washing and measuring body temperature. And the county health teams, the local arm of the Ministry of Health, are coordinating supply distributions and ambulances.

Community work across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is the world’s first line of defense against Ebola. But in order for grass-roots efforts to be sustained, people need more resources, including disease-control training, bleach and other hygiene supplies, vehicles to assist with the canvassing of households, and logistical support for the safe burial and cremation of the deceased.

Communities also need more Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs). Regular hospitals are not equipped to manage such a virulent disease, so ETUs are the only safe places for care.

The three facilities I visited in Liberia are managed like military bases: No one is allowed in the suspected and confirmed patient area (the so-called red zone) without protective suits and gloves; hand and shoe washing is strictly enforced; and every square foot of the premises is repeatedly sanitized with chlorinated water, which effectively kills the virus. People were so well-protected that I saw only two patients — and both from afar.

Eight treatment units are now operational in Liberia, and more facilities are slated to open in the coming weeks. But significant medical supplies and staff are needed to safely manage them. This is where quarantines for returning aid workers and travel bans would be particularly harmful. My organization alone needs to deploy 25 specialists to Liberia in a matter of days for its new ETU, along with crates of drugs and thousands of protective suits, gloves and masks. If these people and supplies are prevented from reaching Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, communities would have nowhere to send patients, and the cycle of infection would continue — both in West Africa and abroad.

Shifting the attention to West Africa’s communities would go further than attracting resources. It would send an important signal to the people there that the world stands with them. The Liberians I meet show extraordinary resilience as they face this crisis, even with decades of devastating civil war in their near past. It is critical that the international community joins their fight against Ebola — rather than isolate itself from it.

The global attention on Ebola presents an opportunity to rally around the communities at the epicenter of this crisis. Let’s make it count.

Max Weihe is the grants and information coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Liberia. He grew up in Seattle and graduated from O’Dea High School.



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