Coping With the New Ebola Outbreak: How prepared are Liberian Health Workers?

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Liberian health authorities are confident about the government’s ability to fight the latest outbreak of Ebola that has claimed the life of a 17-year-old boy this week. However, health workers are calling for improvement of working conditions and provision of incentives.

Liberia’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Health, Dr. Francis N. Kateh, says health practitioners here are trustworthy and capable of combating any Ebola virus outbreak in the country.

The confirmation of the Ebola death of the 17 year-old boy in Margibi County reversed Liberia’s Ebola transmission-free status some seven weeks after the country was officially certificated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But as Dr. Kateh was boasting of his Ministry’s preparedness, level of experience and training of Liberian health workers, two more new confirmed Ebola cases were reported in the same Nendonwein area where the boy died.

The first outbreak of Ebola claimed the lives of over 4,000 people in Liberia including scores of health workers. This time, Dr. Kateh believes things are not going to be the same, because there are presently trained manpower who have the capacity and experience to handle infectious disease outbreaks, including the Ebola virus.

“We want to encourage the public to speak out and report any suspected case to health workers within their various communities to avoid further outbreak. We want to also encourage community dwellers to keep sick people away from others, bury all dead bodies safely, and remain very vigilant as health workers strive to contain the situation in Margibi County,” the Chief Medical Officer cautioned.

The outbreak of the Ebola virus disease last year exposed the weaknesses in Liberia’s health care system, which had very little supplies of gloves and no Personal Protective Equipment as well as just a few ambulances to begin with.

Many are not sure how prepared health workers are now to face this new Ebola outbreak, in the wake of mounting protests by former ETU workers for unpaid risk benefits during the last outbreak.

Some say they are prepared training-wise but motivation is another question.

Nurse Alice Beyan is confident that Liberian health workers have good training and experience in containing the new Ebola outbreak.

“There were lessons learned from the last outbreak and as such, health practitioners are fully prepared for future outbreak of epidemic and other diseases. Since the first outbreak, Ministry of Health and its partners have been able to train health workers in Infection and Prevention Control (IPC),” Nurse Beyan said.
She citied the building of triages at various health centers across the country and said they would help in monitoring patients entering those health facilities for treatment.

“The government has supplied health centers with Personal Preventive Equipment (PPE) as a means of preparing health workers ahead of any outbreak. But more need to be done in building responsive and vibrant health centers that will respond to diseases,” the local health worker told our Reporters from her clinic in Dolo Town.

Although she is optimistic, Nurse Beyan thinks more incentives and better benefits need to be given Liberian health workers, in addition to training of more nurses. She also spoke of the need to improve the surveillance system through community-based programs.

Like the Health Ministry authorities, the Ms. Beyan wants citizens to have confidence in their health practitioners, amidst the latest Ebola outbreak.

“Liberians need to build confidence in the country’s health workers by reporting sick people and dead ones. If the new outbreak must be contained, it will require the involvement of the various communities.”

Another health worker, Madam Irene G. Sherman, Officer-In-Charge of Soniwein Health Center in central Monrovia, also supports the view that health workers, government and its partners have the experience and capacity to combat the virus.

However, Madam Sherman regretted that motivation and incentives are lacking.

“We observed that the government is not providing motivation for health workers, because many of them leave Liberia to seek medical treatment in other countries rather than focus on building the capacity of health workers and facilities to ensure that health practitioners perform well,” the Soniwein Health Center official added.

“For years now, there has been a shortage of doctors, nurses and other trained health workers. The deaths of many of them during the first Ebola crisis has even further worsened the problem. Poor pay and conditions of service have led to flight of local health workers, while others have opted out of the profession.

“We usually struggle as health workers to get to work, even at the point that health workers are not being assisted by the Health Ministry’s vehicles when they are wearing clothes that identify them as health workers. They forget to know that these are the people making them to use big cars,” Nurse Irene Sherman said.

But whenever they are pressed to comment on the plight of Liberia’s health workers, health authorities and the government have pointed to an ambitious blueprint in the post Ebola recovery plan expected to be heavily funded by the international community.

Many Liberians are crossing their fingers and hoping that health workers along with the Health Ministry and partners would work harder in order to ensure that this latest outbreak does not spread.

Dr. Kateh has said health workers have been dormant since then and, as such, need refresher training to ensure that they are steadfast in handling the situation.

Note: This story was produced out of a week-long media training workshop organized by the Liberian Women Media Action (LIWOMAC).

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