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Liberian Health Workers Face Angry Residents Over Ebola Deaths

Thu, 07 Aug 2014 00:12:12 +0000

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(MONROVIA, Liberia) -- As doctors at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta fight to save the lives of two Americans infected with Ebola overseas, in Liberia, the epicenter of the outbreak, health officials are still struggling to contain the deadly virus.

Liberia, where the death toll has risen to 282 people, is a ground zero for the catastrophic outbreak. Bodies of those infected litter neighborhood streets, some buried in shallow graves, others left to rot.

Mark Korvaya is a Liberian government health worker fighting an uphill and increasingly dangerous battle.

Workers like him have the grim task of taking samples of the dead bodies to test for Ebola. Not only are they at risk for being infected themselves, but they also have become targets for violent protests. Angry residents blame health workers for spreading the disease, or for not being quick enough to respond to requests to confiscate potentially contagious bodies.

Korvaya believes the work of sampling bodies is important, because confirming an Ebola infection in a dead body helps officials track, and hopefully stop, the virus.

Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses on Earth. Highly contagious, it kills up to 90 percent of the people it infects and spreads through contact with bodily fluids like blood, sweat and vomit. Symptoms begin with fever, vomiting and severe blood loss. Death comes quickly, often within a few days, for all but a lucky few.

When Korvaya and his team enter a neighborhood stricken with Ebola, they suit up in full hazmat gear because even the slightest contact with the virus can be deadly.

“That’s why they say don’t shake hands with anybody because you can never know who it is that you see that has been touching somebody,” said one health worker.

The Liberian government’s health department workers are overworked and often undertrained. They simply aren’t able to work fast enough to keep up with the dozens of people who die each day, and they face different challenges every place they visit.

In Clara Town, a small neighborhood in Liberia, enraged residents were begging the government to take away the bodies of those who have died. But in another neighborhood, angry residents, many of whom are Muslim, wouldn’t allow Korvaya’s team to have access to their dead. Muslim tradition mandates that bodies should be buried the day the person died, but Korvaya’s team wanted to make sure those coming out to mourn their dead wouldn’t become infected with Ebola.

Liberia is a country in chaos, where people are terrified and full of suspicion. Many of the infected refuse to seek treatment, fearing they will be mistreated or turned away at clinics, so they lock themselves inside their homes.

“It’s not easy,” said a resident named Ezekiel Kumeh. “Lost mother, lost a cousin, and then brother and sister are almost at the point of death and they’re refusing to go seek medication....We’re just going to leave it with God, there’s nothing we can do more than this.”

In this poverty-stricken nation, the healthcare system is stretched perilously thin. Sanitation centers line dirt roads but offer only buckets of water and a single bottle of hand sanitizer. For every 10,000 people there is only one doctor, the worst ratio in all of Africa. In the U.S., there is, on average, one doctor for every 400 people.

Doctors in the U.S. are hoping that an experimental Ebola treatment, a serum called Z-Mapp, may save the lives of the two Americans, Nancy Writebol and Ken Brantly, brought back with Ebola. It’s still untested and unapproved, likely years from widespread use. So for those caught in the outbreak, an Ebola cure remains a distant and elusive hope.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

© 2017 Tomlinson-Leis Communications L.P.