Last summer I had the privilege to return to my childhood home of Liberia to teach an exceptional group of nurses who were earning master’s degrees in nursing education. They were preparing to educate a much-needed nursing workforce.
While there, I documented their stories about the current state of health care in Liberia on video. They described how difficult their working conditions were before the horrific Ebola epidemic began. If their conditions during the relatively normal times before Ebola were challenging, I can only imagine how it must be now.
Nurses in this country are on the front line of a heroic battle against a lethal foe. They are bright and competent, but hindered by a simple lack of basic supplies and a fragile health care system that is crumbling around them. Putting themselves at enormous risk, they help others because it is “their calling,” and they do this without proper protective equipment or the promise of anything in return.
Recent data from the Liberian Ministry of Health indicates that health care workers comprise 25 percent of the known Ebola deaths.
Liberia is not failing to control the outbreak because of ignorance or traditional practices. Health care workers are failing because they do not have basic resources for clean and safe health care.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced the United States will offer help Liberia construct as many as 17 Ebola treatment centers in the region, with about 1,700 treatment beds.
That’s a great start. Basic equipment and supplies, testing supplies, generators to provide cool air to people working in hot protective clothing, gasoline for those generators, food, clean water and sanitation are all things that we could – and should – be supplying. Sufficient quantities of IV solutions and medications – things we take for granted here – are also needed to treat the sick.
The general health care situation in Liberia is deteriorating rapidly. A colleague, Jacob Zubah, dean of a nursing school in the area of the country first hit by Ebola, told me that everyone is living in fear. He said it is difficult to even find a ride to transport sick people to the few private health facilities still functioning. “A pregnant woman in labor died on Saturday while en route to the health care center after many failed attempts to find a taxi,” he said.
It is estimated that for every one person dying of Ebola, several more die from treatable diseases. The early symptoms of the Ebola disease are similar to those of Malaria, typhoid fever and gastroenteritis, diseases common to this part of Africa. A growing problem is that no one is willing to treat these patients without protective equipment for fear the patients might be infected with Ebola.
Shirley Fahnbulleh, head of nursing services at a local hospital, was forced to close her clinic that cares for mothers and their children due to a lack of gloves and other protective equipment. “What is needed most are disposable grown, caps, shoes, soap, sanitizer and anything that will help carry out barrier nursing,” she recently told me.
Since her clinic closed, she now spends most of her time teaching people how to be safe in an unsafe environment. “We have done training for nurses representing 15 counties, but we know more is needed. We have even gone onto radio and television talk shows to help spread the word,” she said.
The more “civilized “nations have been ignoring the situation for far too long. Why are we doing so little to help? We have a sophisticated health care system that could halt this epidemic fairly quickly if the needed resources were provided. But Ebola is most likely not a big threat to us, and therefore we overlook it.
As an American, there are many ways you can help. Write your representatives in Congress and demand that the United States takes a role in coordinating efforts on the ground, including immediate access to all known methods of prevention and treatment. Donate to local, national and international organizations working on solutions, such as Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children and Doctors without Borders. Volunteer for jobs here and abroad that increase public awareness on prevention and transmission of the Ebola virus.
There are many ways to be involved without exposing yourself to harm. Just ask.
Jane E. Blood-Siegfried, DNSc, RN, CPNP, is a professor at the Duke University School of Nursing and director of the school’s Global Educational Partnerships and Innovation. To view her video interviews with Liberian health care workers, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8L6Fpzw-o5E.