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EXCLUSIVE: Liberia health system collapsing as Ebola spreads

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 8 Aug 2014 01:10 GMT
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Health workers, wearing head-to-toe protective gear, prepare for work, outside an isolation unit in Foya District, Lofa County, Liberia in this July 2014 UNICEF handout photo. REUTERS/Ahmed Jallanzo/UNICEF/Handout via Reuters
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WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The health care system in Liberia is collapsing, hospitals closing down and medical workers fleeing from the Ebola epidemic, which is poised to worsen, Liberia’s foreign minister said on Thursday.

“People are dying from common diseases because the health care system is collapsing,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It is going to have a long-term impact, even after this crisis is behind us.”

Treatable diseases such as malaria and diarrhea are left untended because frightened Liberians are shunning medical centers, and these deaths could outstrip those from the Ebola virus by three or four fold, he said.

But his biggest concern is the spreading epidemic.

“We are hearing it is going to get worse before it gets better. We do not know how much worse that will be. My main worry is the fear of how many people will die. Right now it is out of control and jumps from place to place,” Ngafuan said.

The number of trained doctors and nurses, already in critical short supply after years of civil war, is shrinking as medical workers get infected, quarantined or are afraid to report to work. The country entered the epidemic with only about 50 doctors for 4 million people, he said.

“What is happening is the entire health sector is being devastated by the crisis. It is not only a killer, but it kills those who care for them, and a good number of them are dying,” Ngafuan said.

Overwhelmed, the three West African countries most affected by the Ebola virus - Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone - stressed at a meeting on Monday with top-level U.S. government officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Bank that a global response is critical, Ngafuan said.

Sierra Leone’s Foreign Minister Samura Kamara in a separate interview in Washington after the three-day U.S.-Africa Summit delivered a similar message.

"This is a disease that is beyond the capacity of the three national governments. We need greater international awareness and support and it should be considered a global health crisis that needs a global response," he said.

Both ministers said they were satisfied with the U.S. response. They have requested emergency assistance to contain the disease, logistical help, laboratories, additional health workers, and help with prevention and education programs.

USAID, the international aid agency, pledged an additional $5 million and sent in an emergency team and the World Bank $200 million in emergency funding to fight the disease, which has claimed 932 lives and spread to Nigeria.

The focus in West Africa is on containment, the ministers said. They were told experimental drugs and vaccines now under development at best would not be available until next year. “It is too early for that,” said Kamara.

But they need more financial help.

Sierra Leone estimates the cost of its emergency measures from July through December at about $25 million but only has $7 million, Kamara said. Liberia's Minister of Health has put the cost at $21 million for the period and faces a $10 million to $15 million shortfall, Ngafuan said. They were tapping their diaspora communities for emergency relief while in Washington.

Rebuilding more resilient health care systems will cost many millions more, the ministers said. But the crisis has shown how disease can ravage their economies and morph into a national security threat.

"It is like you are pressing the pause button on the general economic activity. Schools are not opening. People are in quarantine. They are not coming to work. It is going to have an impact," Ngafuan said.

(Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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