Even as the West African country of Liberia gets to herald good news that no new cases of the Ebola virus have been discovered in recent weeks, the challenge is to not let that success translate into apathy, an LSU researcher told the Baton Rouge Press Club Monday.
Other countries, including Sierra Leone and Guinea, are still working to contain the Ebola outbreaks they have experienced since last summer, said Christopher Mores, associate director for the Center for Experimental Infectious Disease Research at LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
“The real issue here is not taking our eyes off it, like in Sierra Leone, and say it’s over,” Mores said.
The first Ebola cases showed up in the summer, but because the outbreaks were occurring in heavily populated urban areas, the disease spread in ways responders hadn’t experienced before. Previous outbreaks occurred in isolated, rural areas and were relatively easy to contain, Mores explained.
This time, it was different.
“By August, it really became clear that this outbreak was exploding out of control,” Mores said.
After working with state government emergency officials during the fall as more people were becoming aware of the disease, Mores volunteered to work in Sierra Leone.
Mores left to work with the Irish nonprofit GOAL, which had received funding to set up a 100-bed medical facility in the Sierra Leone town of Port Loko.
“My mission then was not only to keep myself safe but to keep the other clinicians safe as well,” said Mores, who served as infection control specialist.
Medical volunteers from all over the world were coming in to help, but few people had experience with an Ebola outbreak, he said. The medical facilities helped provide a way to get patients isolated from family and to get communities to try to stop the spread of Ebola.
Building trust continues to be a problem for community leaders who work to get people to come to health care centers if they are sick, Mores said. Reliance on traditional healing practices continues, and changing long-held cultural habits — such as burial traditions that require contact with the deceased family members — are hard to change.
The GOAL treatment facility opened in December and has seen 200 patients, many of whom died, he said.
So far, almost 10,000 people have died in the countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone out of the 24,000 suspected and confirmed cases recorded, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. There have been four cases in the United States, either from people who had traveled to Sierra Leone or who treated people in the United States infected with Ebola.
In Sierra Leone, the dedicated medical personnel caring for patients were there to make a difference but always wanted to do more, Mores said. It took the constant reminding of staff to find a balance between giving the best care possible and taking care of their own health, he said.
Mores returned to the United States on Feb. 4 but continues to work with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and the CDC on Ebola vaccine trials.
One lesson learned from this series of outbreaks has been to not assume experts know how a disease will progress through a community. Mores said the medical community responded to this outbreak as they had to previous ones in rural areas, but this was different.
“We shouldn’t get too caught up in, ‘We know exactly how the outbreak is going to go,’ ” Mores said. In the meantime, the response continues even if it’s hampered by travel restrictions as well as the lack of research and educational funding to train the next generation of medical responders, he said.
“(Finding) the resources for all of this is very difficult,” Mores said. “It’s quite lean, as everyone knows these days.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.