Liberia turns corner in Ebola recovery

Finally, some good news from Liberia. “Life is edging back to normal after the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history,” The New York Times reports in a story from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

Indiana University has longstanding relationships with Liberia, including a partnership that revolves around public health. The ties were disrupted by the Ebola outbreak that devastated the West African nation and neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone starting last spring.

Mosoka Fallah teaching

Mosoka Fallah, an IU visiting scholar, teaches in a Liberian classroom.

At the peak of the outbreak, the streets of Monrovia were said to be littered with bodies, and Liberia’s fragile health system was overwhelmed. Hospitals turned away people who were suffering from conventional but sometimes deadly diseases. Schools were closed and businesses shut down.

But only five new, confirmed cases of Ebola were reported in Liberia last week, according to a World Health Organization situation report. There were 39 new cases in Guinea and 80 in Sierra Leone, where the virus was later to arrive and later to crest.

Nearly 9,000 people have died from Ebola in West Africa, including more than 3,700 in Liberia, the WHO says. That’s a horrific toll, but it could have been much worse. As of fall 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected there could be 1.4 million Ebola cases by January 2015.

What happened? The U.S. and international organizations mobilized to fight the disease. But apparently the key factor was that Liberians took control of their own situation and changed their behavior.Volunteer health workers organized contact-tracing teams. People were quarantined if they may have been exposed to the virus. Residents took precautions against becoming infected.

The New York Times article describes how Parker Point, a neighborhood in Monrovia, limited Ebola cases to one thanks to the effort of a volunteer watchdog organization.

“Heroes emerged in every community,” Liberian epidemiologist Mosoka Fallah told the Times. “The volunteer task forces may be the biggest reason behind the drop in October.”

Fallah, a visiting scholar in epidemiology with the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, has been a key figure with the Center for Excellence in Health and Life Sciences, an initiative aimed at building Liberia’s public health and medical education infrastructure.

The partnership, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through Higher Education for Development, includes IU, the University of Liberia, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, JFK Memorial Hospital in Monrovia and the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.

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