MINNEAPOLIS — Members of Minnesota's sizeable Liberian community say an Ebola outbreak that has killed hundreds of people in West Africa, including a local woman's husband, has them worrying about relatives and scrambling to raise money to help prevent the virus from spreading.
Minnesota Department of Health officials met with West African community leaders Monday in Brooklyn Park to try to address concerns.
"It is killing people like crazy," said Prudence McCabe, of Brooklyn Park. "Everyone is trying to call family members … we are trying to send money right away. … All we can do is pray and be helpful."
There have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in the U.S. But there has been much anxiety in Minnesota after Nigerian health officials reported Friday that Liberian government official Patrick Sawyer died from the disease after traveling from Liberia. Sawyer's wife and children live in suburban Minneapolis, said Zubah Kpanaku, board chairman for the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, who knows the family.
Patrick Sawyer had planned to come home for two of his three daughters' birthdays next month, his wife, Decontee Sawyer, told KSTP-TV in Minnesota.
"It's a global problem because Patrick could have easily come home with Ebola, easy," Decontee Sawyer said. The Associated Press left phone and email messages for Decontee Sawyer on Monday.
Minnesota is home to about 17 percent of Liberians in the U.S. The Census Bureau estimates there are between 6,000 and 10,000 people with Liberian ancestry in the state, according to data gathered between 2010 and 2012.
The Minnesota Department of Health said officials are providing information to health providers, West African community members and local West African media. At Monday's meeting, officials discussed more community meetings and said they would take out advertisements promoting travel safety and when to seek medical attention.
Asked what visitors from West Africa should do if they become sick, Dr. Aaron DeVries, medical director of the health department's infectious diseases division, said they should go to their regular doctor.
"The majority of the time, in fact, almost always, it will be another problem that needs addressing — not Ebola," he said.
Sakui Malakpa, a professor at the University of Toledo, Ohio, said he has a ticket to travel to Liberia Aug. 12, but is considering postponing his trip.
"My children are especially concerned," he said. "All of us Liberians are very, very worried about people, because this stuff is so infectious and it's very deadly. … The last thing we want is for people here to be worried about us going there."
Kpanaku said his wife is currently in Liberia, helping build a house for family. He said she is a registered nurse, so knows how to protect herself, but she still may try to come back to Minnesota sooner than planned.
Community members say they raised more than $700 during the weekend. Kpanaku said the money may go toward masks, gloves and other supplies that will help prevent people from getting infected, or it could be used to help another group transport supplies they already have collected. More fundraisers are being discussed.
Bea Wilson, president of the Organization of Liberian Women in Minnesota, said she's advising her family members in Liberia to use proper hand-washing techniques and avoid hugging or getting close to people.
"Everybody is affected. Everybody's got families there," she said, adding: "We are all afraid."
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