Liberia’s Medical Crises: What Hope for the Future?

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Liberia today faces very serious medical crises. Even the John F. Kennedy Medical Center (JFK), our leading referral hospital, is in dire straits.

The JFK lacks sufficient medical practitioners, specialists in particular. For example, there is only one Liberian dentist there—Dr. Ayele Ajavon Cox. Worse yet, she has only one Liberian dental colleague in the country—Dr. Taylor Neal—and even more sadly, both are already at retirement age, but cannot afford to retire or else there would be NO Liberian dentists in the country!

We learned this from last week Tuesday’s Daily Observer Health Page, on which our Health Correspondent, Alaskai Johnson, wrote the story, “Liberia’s Oral Health Situation Dismal.”

Alaskai quoted Dr. Neal, who called on the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders to intervene as a matter of urgency to step up the nation’s dental services. He further revealed that besides himself and Dr. Ajavon-Cox, there are only four other dentists serving Liberia’s four million people!

Alaskai was covering the World Oral Health Day celebration, when free dental services were administered to several primary schools in greater Monrovia by Smile for Liberia, a local NGO headed by Dr. Ajavon-Cox.

Dr. Neal had one more lamentation: most of the dental equipment in the country is “obsolete.”

The problem of equipment is one of Liberia’s major medical constraints, not at JFK only, but throughout the country.

There is, for example, no diagnostic equipment at JFK; nor is there even a functional laboratory.

Even equipment for the treatment of serious medical conditions in children is lacking. That is why humanitarian Charlesetta Nougbode-Williams, CEO and founder of Healthpage Liberia, Inc. has always been advised by local doctors to take to Ghana, Germany and other countries for treatment, the hundreds of critically ill children she has cared for over many years. The treatments range from heart disease to seriously infected throats, as with children having drunk caustic soda; and children with imperforated anuses. Most such children, whom she has rescued with the assistance of many well-meaning individuals and institutions, are now back home living normal lives.

Our Judicial Correspondent, Abednego Davis, quoting Liberia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Arzo Acquoi yesterday, reported that Liberia also lacked a functional CT Scan or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine.

The CT Scan is also called X-ray computer tomography (X-ray CT) or Computerized Axial Tomography scan (CAT scan). These machines make use of computer-processed combinations of many X-ray images taken from different angles to produce cross-sectional (tomographic) images of specific areas of a scanned object, allowing the user to see inside the object without cutting. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to image the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body.

Dr. Acquoi disclosed this during the trial of Vandalark Patricks, whose lawyers are pleading with the judge to allow Patricks to travel abroad for treatment, for which the CT Scan, etc. are needed.

But next to Liberia’s medical equipment crisis, there is the serious lack of medical practitioners and specialists.

For example, there is only one Liberian radiologist and only one orthopedic surgeon practicing here. We have no Liberian ear, nose and throat specialist, pathologist, cardiologist, fully qualified dermatologist and no plastic surgeon in the country. Dr. Walter Brumskine, who recently died, was Liberia’s first and only urologist.

But remember, there are thousands of other medical specialists that it will take decades to train for Liberia.

What must be done? For over a decade, this newspaper, Daily Observer, has urged the Ministry of Health (MOH) to engage the World Health Organization (WHO) and embassies near Monrovia to find fellowships to train into specialists our young medical doctors coming out of the A.M. Dogliotti Medical College, University of Liberia (UL).

Is that not what Public Health Director General, Dr. Joseph N. Togba, did in the late 1940s and 1950s? President W.V.S. Tubman sent him to Geneva in 1948 as one of two Africans who participated in the creation of WHO. Backed by President Tubman, Dr. Togba in 1954 was elected the WHO Assembly’s first African President. Dr. Togba used his connections to find fellowships to train our young scientists in Medicine and Medical Specializations in America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

A young Liberian journalist, undergoing training in Berlin, West Germany in 1965, interviewed many Liberians doing medical training and specialization in America and Europe. In his investigative story that followed, he predicted that by the early to mid-1970s Liberians would take over medical practice in Liberia. And it happened. By 1975 most specialists at JFK were Liberians.

But there developed a shattering exodus following the 1980 coup d’état, followed by the civil war (December 1989-1990), when most Liberian professionals, including medical, fled the country with their talented children, for the most part never to return!

That was the beginning of Liberia’s real decline, from which, alas! We have not yet recovered. And unfortunately, during the 11 years of this administration, the situation has not changed.

But it is NOT too late!

The MOH should engage the A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicine, the UL and the Liberia Post Graduate College of Medicine and enter serious and FOCUSED negotiations with WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and all other international organizations and nations that helped us end Ebola, as well as embassies near Monrovia. The objective: to find fellowships for our young medical doctors to pursue specializations.

If all these Liberian institutions work harmoniously, conscientiously and selflessly together, within five to 10 years there could be a monumental positive difference in the practice of medicine in Liberia.

Health Minister Bernice Dahn, the leadership of this bold, timely and URGENT initiative is in your hands.

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