Ebola Outbreak in Liberia: A Test for the Nation’s Public Healthcare Management

There has been widespread concern for public healthcare since late March 2014 when the Ebola Virus was reported in Liberia. Public health management in the event of the virus transmission to Liberia through the country’s border with its neighboring country, Guinea, giving assurance that the disease is not getting out of control, has put stop to public fear and panic. It is timely to appraise what Liberian health authorities along with their partners from the international community have done to exert control and provide prevention of spillover to an epidemic level of the deadly virus disease.

Health experts have said there is no vaccine or cure for now, but people can take care of themselves to prevent the virus from being transmitted from person to person. The fatality the virus can cause and the difficulty to establish control from spreading rapidly like it was reportedly spreading in Guinea make it one of the serious, if not the most serious, public health care management cases for public health concern. Population health in this instance becomes the focus of public health authorities and stakeholders. Identifying cases of the Ebola virus, tracing people who have contracted the virus, getting them isolated, giving supportive care to the patients because there are no real treatments for the Ebola virus disease yet, and breaking the chains of transmission, are said to be the most practical methodologies that the authorities adopt to deal with the outbreak of the deadly disease. As they monitor and evaluate development of the virus, the most public officials and other stakeholders do is keep the public informed about how to behave in this kind of potentially volatile public health situation.

Until March 23– 24, 2014, the Ebola virus was unknown in Liberia. This was reportedly the first time the virus was found in Liberia, in fact in West Africa. For that reason, it took some time for all the managerial organization to fall in place, following the first outbreak, a test for the Public Health Management in the country. The response from Public Health officers was timely and professional, allaying fear and panic though  with discretely managed information, but the managerial organization really started taking shape only beginning from last week.

Generally, the positive concern shown by authorities for public safety of the general population of Liberia and steps taken to ensure the spread of the virus is being well mitigated, after it had been detected in the first human carrier, by tracing and quarantining of the carriers, and preventing of spread of the virus to a significant portion of the public through public education, is a laudable initiative.

However, the outbreak exposed a weak link on our disaster management readiness chain, as while the Public Health authorities were to their heels to respond adequately to the outbreak, the nation was scrambling for a disaster management policy which seemed to be non-existent.

Both the local and foreign news media have been replete with reports of development in the wake of the Ebola virus here. On the early morning hours of Tuesday April 8, 2014, the BBC World Service regular BBC News Day broadcast was relayed on the local 103.1 FM and the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS). The BBC News Day brought on MSF health personnel working in Guinea on the Ebola case who threw light on chances of survival and treatment of the patient, which is worth noting here.

The anchorman on BBC News Day that morning asked specific questions about the way that the virus treats its victims, particularly the very slim chance of survival, usually put as between 25 percent and 90 percent of the patients do not survive the Ebola virus. The response of the MSF health personnel in Guinea implied that that figure of very poor chance of survival may not be true, of course provided the virus human carrier is given the proper medical treatments.

Treatment indeed increases the chances of survival of Ebola patients, and more than 50 percent of patients survive with hydration and provision of proper nutrients to the patients, things which the patients lose significantly when the virus mutates in the human body, the MSF health personnel told BBC News DAY from Guinea.

Family members and funeral attendants of victims must be looked after because these relatives and sympathizers can be potential carriers. For instance, the MSF health personnel even went further to note that in Guinea the first contact person and family were identified, and efforts are underway for all those who had come in contact with them to be traced, something which he asserted is a must. Another point from that BBC News Day which is worth noting is that the World Health Organization (WHO) is emphatically definite about the time, that it will take up to four months for spread of the Ebola virus to be contained in Guinea, because it had spread widely in some areas in the country, and people who had come in contact with victims in the areas must be traced. One may listen to BBC podcast of the BBC News Day online. (For more, Google BBC or go the BBC website on the internet.)

The New York Time, another foreign media, reporting online the Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea and transmission from Guinea to Liberia, sheds much needed light in the face of myths and unfounded rumors reported in the U.S. press over the Ebola virus, an article which, though for the American public, is good for informing the Liberian public to debunk similar myths and rumors being circulated here. (For more, Google Search to read the full opinion article: New York Time “Ebola Virus: A Grim, African Reality”, by David Quammen, April 9, 2014).

Meanwhile, the Government of Liberia has put in place the infrastructure to manage control of the spread of the virus, mainly with a robust information dissemination regime. GoL started the “Ebola Half Hour” on local radio stations last week. The Ebola Half Hour radio broadcast comes on after the daily Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MH&SW) and stakeholders meeting.

In the same week, MH&SW informed the public that the United States Defense Department was slated to open two laboratories, main lab to be opened at the Liberia Institute of Bio-medical Research (LIBR) in Margibi County, and a mobile lab in Foya, Lofa County, a town in northern Liberia on the border with Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Thus, though there is no vaccine or cure for the Ebola virus, there are proper treatments for the Ebola hemorrhagic fever which is being facilitated by a more or less robust Public Health management system.