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Beds scarce, staff scarcer in Liberia's Ebola wards

29 September 2014, 10:31

Monrovia - They carry photos, bags of food - and hope. But what the families idling at the gate of this Ebola centre in Monrovia lack is news of the fate of their sick loved ones inside.

George Williams brought his wife and daughter to the Island Clinic on Tuesday and since then has had "no news, no contact with my family".

"I trust the doctors and the government," he says.

But his faith draws hoots of laughter from the 40-odd others also waiting. For days, they say, no news of their family has ventured beyond the clinic's barbed-wire and high walls - only cadavers.

The keeper of the clinic gate, in protective white gear from head to toe, looks like he is transported from outer space to this sweltering, misery-infected African city.

The crowd's noisy complaints fall silent as the gates open, and two Red Cross trucks, each carrying a dozen body bags, emerge.

A woman cries out, then two - and then anger surges again.

"I want to see my son!" Janjay Geleplay, hard-faced, demands.

She brought 12-year-old Joshua on Sunday from the "72nd" district of Liberia's capital, where "there is a lot of Ebola".

"We get no record from the authorities. They always say we should wait. I come here every day. I want to see my son! Maybe he is already dead," she says, dry-eyed.

The Island clinic opened on Sunday. By the next day its 120 beds were full.

"As of Friday, we had 206 patients," a spokesperson for the UN's World Health Organisation, which runs the centre, told AFP.

Like all the NGO-run Ebola centres in Liberia, the Island is under-resourced and overrun by demand, forced to fill in for a public health infrastructure that has been decimated by 14 years of civil war and grinding poverty.

"There is supposed to be a system to allow the patients to talk to their families while keeping a distance of several metres - but apparently it's not up and running yet," a clearly embarrassed WHO official there says.

Of the four west African nations affected by the Ebola outbreak, Liberia has been hit the hardest, with 3 458 people infected, and 1 830 of killed by the disease.

A total of more than 6 500 infections, almost all in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, have been recorded since the beginning of the year according to a WHO count as of Saturday. Of those, 3 091 people have died so far.

More beds, few aid workers

In the other city of Monrovia, a 160-bed Ebola clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) had to turn away patients for days.

A Belgian aid worker, forced to act as a "bouncer" there, quit and returned home, traumatised by the need to turn away the sick and dying.

"A lot of people are saying this is the hardest mission they've ever had," an MSF colleague says, requesting anonymity.

But the colleague also pointed to progress, saying that "slightly fewer arrivals" since Thursday has meant no one needed to be turned away - "perhaps because new centres have been opened".

International efforts are finally building speed to get critical supplies and staff to stricken nations, following a call for fresh aid by US President Barack Obama, and along with fast-track funding from the International Monetary Fund.

The UN has estimated that nearly one billion dollars will be required to effectively fight the disease.

"In the next two to three weeks, we'll have over a thousand beds available in Monrovia," Frank Mahoney, the representative of the US health body Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says.

The WHO is planning on creating 500 new beds within the month, and MSF plans to have a total of 400 beds, while Obama has also charged the US army with setting up beds.

Jean-Pierre Veyrenche, in charge of the construction of clinics in Monrovia for the WHO, says the task is especially complicated in the dense Liberian capital.

"You need 5 000 square metres for a 100-bed clinic - not easy to find in a big city like Monrovia, with marshy terrain. And the heavy rains are an enormous obstacle, as is the high water table which makes it impossible to dig latrines and is forcing us to build septic tanks out of concrete."

Like all NGOs and political leaders, he appeals for more aid workers on the ground.

Also read: Liberia: Top doctor goes under Ebola quarantine

"I think people are scared," Veyrenche says, "No one knows how to deal with Ebola in an urban zone, and in such numbers... But the international humanitarian community must act. There are ways of working here. You can't get Ebola from stepping down onto the runway."

A group of aid workers in Monrovia noted the same problem. "Supplies are coming in, but what we're still missing are healthcare personnel," one of them tells AFP.

After a devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, 820 NGOs mobilised with on-the-ground efforts, he says. In Liberia, there are fewer than 10.

Outside the Island clinic, 32-year-old Finley Freeman handed his homemade meals over to the gatekeeper to deliver to his mother.

He has not seen her for days but gets his news directly.

"I talked to her on the phone last night. She keeps praying," he says.



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