Hunting Ebola in Liberia
The only way to stop Ebola is to stop it everywhere
With a recent decline in the number of Ebola cases in Liberia, the fight against the virus has changed from mass treatment to hunting down the virus wherever it emerges. It takes only one case to put a whole village at risk.
The sun set three hours ago. The headlights of the rusty yellow taxi bounce in the dark as the car zigs left and then right to skirt potholes scattered along the road. This car, which has come from Monrovia, is crossing Margibi on its way to Gibi with lethal cargo aboard. Her name was Patricia*. Its name is Ebola.
The taxi passes through Kakata and turns right, onto the dirt roads.
A final journey
This final trip for Patricia* under the cover of darkness comes just one week after her fiancé was buried in secret. Patricia had cared for him during his brief, but arduous, illness. Shortly after the burial, she began to take ill.
Patricia passed away at the Bushrod clinic. Her medical chart indicates that the dual causes of her death were malaria and typhoid. Patricia’s father collected her body from the clinic. He wanted to bring his beloved daughter home, to her final resting place. He called a taxi. Patricia’s body was loaded on board, and the car began its journey.
Around the time the taxi left the clinic, Tarlo Kerkula received a call. Ms. Kerkula is a county mobilization coordinator in Montesserrado, and a part of UNICEF’s front line in the fight against Ebola. The caller alerted her that there was a corpse passing through Margibi by taxi, and that it was possible that the death had been caused by Ebola.
Ms. Kerkula rang Sophie Reeves, her colleague in Margibi, who sounded the alarm. Checkpoints along the way were alerted.
The end of the road
It’s late. The taxi rumbles to a stop in a village of 150 people. Patricia’s father and brother open the door and lift Patricia’s body from the car. The neighbours rush to help.
The villagers undress the young woman’s body and wash it. They dress it in new clothes and tie the jaw closed. They carry it into the kitchen behind the family’s house. An elderly man stands guard over the body through the night.
In the morning, a UNICEF district mobilization coordinator confirms a dead body in the town of Lonfay. The coordinator alerts health partners, who set out immediately.
A team of health workers and social mobilizers arrive in Lonfay. ‘Contact tracers’, who establish who has been in contact with the sick person, while she was alive or after she died, begin to talk to the family. Patricia died of malaria and typhoid, the team are told. Only Patricia’s father and brother have touched the body.
The UNICEF county mobilization coordinator expands the inquiry, talking to neighbours. The workers draft a list of 36 people who have been in contact with Patricia’s body.
While their colleagues are collecting information, UNICEF social mobilizers have taken the opportunity to talk to the community about Ebola prevention measures, including safe burials, and symptoms of Ebola.
In the meantime, lab technicians have taken a sample from Patricia’s body. As soon as they have collected what they need, the burial team can start the burial process and sanitize the area.
Action against Ebola
The test has come back positive. Patricia passed away from Ebola infection.
The team gather leaders of Lonfay and tell them about the result. The next 21 days are critical, they say; that’s the incubation period of Ebola.
The townspeople agree to a town quarantine. UNICEF and partners stay in the village to make sure they all know how to protect themselves from Ebola, and what to do if they have symptoms. The team visit neighbouring villages to alert them about the Ebola case and to discuss Ebola prevention.
The virus that took Patricia’s life took that last taxi ride with her body, before it alit in Lonfay town. The number of Ebola cases in Liberia may be dwindling — but that is all the more reason that UNICEF and partners are chasing the virus everywhere it wields its lethal power. Only after every case in every town — however hard to reach — has been stamped out and preventive and protective measures firmly put in place will this virus be stopped.
*Name has been changed.
By Sophie Reeves and Helene Sandbu Ryeng
Photos by Sophie Reeves