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A medical worker is decontaminated in West Africa. (Photo: EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser)

In Liberia's Ebola-Stricken Villages, Residents Face 'Stark' Choices

Situation in Liberian capital of Monrovia is "catastrophic," medical experts say

Deirdre Fulton

In an effort to control the Ebola outbreak that medical experts say is raging "virtually unchecked" in the nation's capital, Liberia has quarantined remote villages in the northeast, setting up medical roadblocks, deploying military forces to keep infected people from leaving their homes, and effectively shutting off some communities from the outside world.

"With few food and medical supplies getting in, many abandoned villagers face a stark choice: stay where they are and risk death or skip quarantine, spreading the infection further in a country ill-equipped to cope," Eric Telmor and Emma Farge write for Reuters.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has scaled up its operations, delivering food to tens of thousands of affected people in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. In a statement announcing its intent to supply 24,000 Liberian people affected by Ebola with full rations for 90 days, the WFP explained:

WFP’s food assistance to hospitalized victims in isolation centers ensures that the victims receive the necessary nutrients for their bodies to fight the virus. WFP’s food assistance also ensures that while under quarantine, people have enough to eat and do not have to leave their homes to purchase food.  WFP assistance thus helps to stabilize affected communities by limiting unnecessary movement and enabling people to cope with lost livelihoods.

Still, with almost 300,000 people living just in Lofa — one of the counties under quarantine, which has recorded more new cases of Ebola than anywhere else — this assistance will surely not go far enough. 

Meanwhile, the situation in Liberia's capital of Monrovia was described Friday as "catastrophic" and "deteriorating daily" — and that was before Saturday's overnight raid by armed men on a quarantine center, during which about 30 patients absconded, raising fears about potential contamination within the tightly packed neighborhood of West Point. As of Monday afternoon, 20 of those patients had returned, and 17 were still missing.

BuzzFeed reported from the scene:

A mob descended on the center at around 5:30 p.m., chanting, “No Ebola in West Point! No Ebola in West Point!” They stormed the front gate and pushed into the holding center. They stole the few gloves someone had donated this morning, and the chlorine sprayers used to disinfect the bodies of those who die here, all the while hollering that Ebola is a hoax.

They ransacked the protective suits, the goggles, the masks.

Jemimah Kargbo, a health care worker at a clinic next door, said they took mattresses and bedding, utensils and plastic chairs.

The events were reflective of growing distrust among Liberians of government and health care workers. As says: "The situation was brought on by a distrust of the government, the belief that the infection was a big hoax, and also by fear that the quarantine center was accepting too many patients from other regions, making the facilities into 'death traps.'"

On Monday, Doctors Without Borders admitted nine patients into its newly constructed Ebola Management Center in Monrovia, which has a capacity to hold 120 patients.

"An Ebola outbreak continues to rage virtually unchecked in this city of approximately one million people, far exceeding the capacity of the few medical facilities accepting Ebola patients," an MSF Field News update declared. "Much of the city’s health system has shut down over fears of Ebola among staff members and patients, leaving many people without treatment for other conditions."

Calling on the international community to step up its response to the health emergency, Lindis Hurum, MSF emergency coordinator in Liberia, expressed despair:

We have exhausted our available pool of experienced medical staff and cannot scale up our response any further. We desperately need the [World Health Organization], countries, and other aid agencies to deploy staff to the field. We are Doctors Without Borders, but not without limits.

As recently as Friday, MSF's Liu said: "If we don't stabilize Liberia, we'll never stabilize the region."

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