San Diego Doctor Returns From Ebola Mission In Liberia
It’s been nearly a year since the deadly Ebola crisis hit West Africa and sent a ripple of fear across the world. From the beginning, a San Diego-based humanitarian group, Project Concern International, has been on the front lines of the outbreak.
“The situation is much better,” said Dr. Blanca Lomeli, a PCI official who spent much of January in Liberia. She said Ebola cases in Liberia have gone from an average of 100 new patients per week to five.
Lomeli, who specializes in infectious diseases, said the region is “not out of the woods.”
“We certainly have not strengthened the health systems in a way that they can sustain the next epidemic by themselves,” she said.
According to the World Health Organization, 9,253 people in West Africa have died since the outbreak began last March, including more than 300 health workers. Nearly 23,000 have been sickened with suspected or confirmed cases.
Lomeli and her team focused on training health care workers and hospital staff on how to safely treat diseased patients.
“To prevent themselves from getting infected and potentially dying,” Lomeli said. "Most of them were afraid at the beginning. A lot of the health care workers working in ETUs (ebola treatment units) were dying, so they were still afraid."
Many of Liberia’s health facilities closed and rejected patients during the crisis. Now, some are reopening, but challenges remain.
“It’s not a strong health system. People need training, people need supplies,” Lomeli said. “Policies need to be in place.”
She said schools remain closed, food security is threatened and travel is restricted.
"For us to get to the communities was five-and-a-half hours of very bumpy dusty roads," she said.
Lomeli also worked on educating people in the community on preventing the spread of Ebola and other diseases. She said community denial and mistrust in some regions remain a problem.
“It took a lot of effort and a lot of care to convince people, first that Ebola was real, and then that ... they could do something about it," she said.
Now, people are becoming more proactive in preventing infection, she said.
“You have to wash your hands any time you enter any office, any home, any store, any hotel,” Lomeli said. “And your temperature is checked all the time.”
A no-touch policy remains in place, with no embraces or handshakes allowed. Still, Lomeli said, the care and affection people have for one another is evident.
“They were going through this horrible thing for so many months,” she said. “I was impressed by their resilience and by the love they have for each other.”
Lomeli said her biggest fear now is that people will become too complacent about Ebola as the disease fades.
“When things get this bad is when you’re not ready for them, when you don’t know what to do, when you don’t have the resources you need to prevent a disease like this from spreading,” she said.
Lomeli said she’ll continue her work until Ebola is fully controlled. She plans to return to Liberia this spring.
Project Concern International was recognized by President Obama at the White House earlier this month in recognition of their work in fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.