Liberian Rugby Star Helps Fight Ebola

Tamba Hali fled Liberia when it was in the midst of a bloody civil war. Now that the West African nation is at the center of a very different crisis — an outbreak of Ebola — the Chiefs linebacker is lending his support to a humanitarian relief effort.

Hali joined officials from Heart to Heart International, based in suburban Kansas City, to announce Tuesday the construction of a clinic near the capital of Monrovia that will offer 70 beds for patients stricken by the virus.

“People are dying,” Hali said, “and they’re dying at a rapid rate.”

Liberia has been among the hardest hit nations at the center of the long outbreak, which has killed more than 3,000 people.

“The medical system is overwhelmed by the Ebola epidemic, and every doctor and health official said the biggest need is more Ebola treatment units,” said Heart to Heart founder Dr. Gary Morsch. “The world must respond — and urgently — to get control of this outbreak.”

As of Friday, there had been 3,834 confirmed Ebola cases and 2,069 deaths in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization. Forty-four percent of those cases were reported in the past three weeks, a signal that the infectious disease is spreading.

“Liberians are smart people, strident people. It was a beautiful country at one point, when I was very young,” Hali said. “These are good people, God-fearing people, but this is a third-world country. They need help.”

Hali, who fled with his father from Liberia at the age of 10, became an American citizen a few years ago. But he still has family members in Monrovia, on the Pacific coast, and Lofa County, which is along the northern border with Sierra Leone.

“They’ve been fortunate,” Hali said. “My family that’s there hasn’t contracted Ebola.”

Heart to Heart has been responding to health crises and natural disasters for decades, from Haiti to the Philippines.   But the deadly nature of Ebola combined with the expense of treating it — the clinic will cost about $1 million per month to operate — make this the most complex humanitarian endeavor the organization has ever attempted.

Jim Mitchum, Heart to Heart’s chief executive, said there are already six similar clinics in Liberia. Health officials estimate that 27 will be needed to treat the outbreak.

“We are staring into the deep, dark pool of a frightening human crisis,” Mitchum said, “and we don’t yet know where the bottom lies.”

Heart to Heart sent an advance team to Liberia several weeks ago. The team returned last week and decided the best use of the organization’s resources would be to open a clinic staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses in Kakata, a city located about 40 miles from Monrovia.

Construction should be finished by November. The clinic will be opened with the support of several NGOs and the backing of the U.S. and Liberian governments.

Dr. Lee Norman, the chief medical officer at University of Kansas Medical Center, has pledged the hospital’s support to Heart to Heart’s mission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has also offered its assistance.

Many relief organizations have been criticized for putting volunteers in danger by sending them to nations such as Liberia. Mitchum dismissed such criticism.

“We must fight this disease where it is, stop it where it is,” he said. “We don’t have an opportunity to put a fence around West Africa then let it burn itself out. That’s not how we deal with people.’’

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