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Liberia's Ebola disposal teams preserve life after death

08 September 2014, 11:50

Monrovia - Heavily pregnant when she died, Fatimah Jakemah is lifted unceremoniously by experts in biohazard suits and zipped into a body bag, another practically anonymous victim of the world's worst ever Ebola outbreak.

There isn't time to ask about her life story or reflect on the family she may have left behind as the Red Cross team disinfects everything she might have touched and moves onto the next house.

"She was 20 years old and this was her first time getting pregnant," says Gaimu Paul, one of Fatimah's neighbours in Banjor, a slum on the outskirts of Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

"When she got sick, the neighbours fled the area and no one knows where they have gone."

Paul says Fatimah spent days shouting for help before her cries eventually went silent.

"She wanted drink, food, but we were afraid to go closer. Whenever you go close to an Ebola patient to help, the community rejects you."

In the centre of the west African Ebola outbreak, there is no dignity in death, no farewell, no funeral - just body bags, biohazard suits and millions of gallons of disinfectant.

The tropical virus, transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids, has killed 2 100 people in four countries since the start of the year - more than half of them in Liberia.

Amid fears that the country's already weak healthcare system could be close to collapse, teams of Red Cross workers have taken on the grim task of going door-to-door, picking up victims and sterilising their homes.

'Make sure they're dead'

The Red Cross medical team has come to Banjor to collect two bodies, but it is soon apparent that there are more.

Community chief John Yarngroble shows team leader Kiyea Friday to the next tin and wood hut after they have bagged up Fatimah.

Fatoma Amadu, who is sick but not yet dead, is sprawled across the doorway in the entrance porch, his breathing laboured.

Also read: Kenya rules out Ebola case following scare at airport

Two nurses in biohazard suits step over him to get into the house, where they are expecting to find an old woman's body.

But they come out after a few minutes and tell their boss that she too is still alive.

"We are here only to pick up bodies. Before you call us make sure the person is dead. Those who are responsible for the sick people are different," Friday chides Yarngroble.

Yarngroble is trying to be polite and professional but tears run down his cheeks as he responds.

"OK, sir. When they die we will call you again. Thank you for coming."

Friday picks up his mobile phone and talks calmly but urgently.

"I have two persons here in critical conditions. Can you send an ambulance for them? I also want more body bags. So many deaths here. I need at least six more body bags. I am feeling bad sir -- the death rate is too high," he says into the handset.

Victims of Ebola are at their most infectious when they have just died, and traditional funerals involving the washing of bodies have been blamed for the large geographical spread of the contagion.

The work of the Red Cross is called "dead body management", a euphemism which underplays their vital role in containing the outbreak.

50 bodies a day

Friday tells his team to get back into their ambulances and they drive to a house where a father and son have died.

"Some time ago he lost one of his children, who was sick in Brewerville," says Mohamed Barbar, a family friend.

"Because they are Muslims, he went there and they washed the body. Since they came back, they have been falling sick. Five people have died."

Barbar calls over a 20-year-old man and an eight-year-old boy who are identified as sons of the dead man.

"These are the people who have been in contact with them when they were sick," he tells Friday, who instructs them to get tested in a treatment centre.

"We are telling you this so that other people will not die. You have been near your father and your brother, taking care of them when they were sick. You just have to be tested," he says.

He shakes his head reproachfully when they are not listening, confiding under his breath that "they too look very sick, they need treatment".

It takes the team five minutes to bring out the victims, and the surviving brothers break down as they see the sealed body bags.

"Sometimes we pick up more than 15 bodies a day, and we are not the only team. I would say that the total the Red Cross picks up daily is of 30 to 50 bodies," says on Friday.

"People are dying and we don't know when and how it will end."



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