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Liberia and Guinea meet key targets in Ebola fight as Sierra Leone lags

December 1, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the battle to contain Ebola in West Africa.

The World Health Organization reported today that Liberia and Guinea have met two key targets. They’re now isolating 70 percent of those infected, and ensuring safe burials for 70 percent of those who have died. More than 6,900 people have been killed by the virus during this outbreak.

Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations is back from a recent trip to Liberia and Sierra Leone. She has a new e-book called “Ebola: Story of an Outbreak.”  She is symptom-free, but since she is still being monitored, we spoke with her by Skype from New York.

Laurie Garrett, welcome.

So there is some good news today from the WHO about Guinea and Liberia. How do you size up the situation there, having just come back?

LAURIE GARRETT, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, certainly, in Liberia, the American presence has made a difference. The staggering capacity of the Liberians themselves, the way they have organized, has made a difference.

And, indeed, that epidemic, which was doom and gloom in September, has plummeted. Now, the danger is to get cocky and think, OK, so, it’s all over, we can all go back to behaving exactly as we did before Ebola emerged.

And, of course, Liberia made that mistake before, back in April, thinking that it had this small intrusion from Guinea, but it was over and everybody could go back to business as usual. And, of course, we know what happened after that.

Guinea, I have not been in Guinea, but I can say that the data we have so far looks promising. That’s a country where the president himself has deeply engaged in fighting the epidemic. Sierra Leone is another story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about the challenges in Sierra Leone, based on what you saw?

LAURIE GARRETT: It’s a really tough situation.

Physically, it’s a very tough country, mountainous, hilly, lots of mud, very difficult just to simply get around from place to place. And in Freetown, in the capital, you have a really massive level of denial.

The kind of social distancing, where everybody in Liberia stays a certain distance away from the next person and washes their hands in bleach, you don’t really see that in Freetown. You don’t really see that in Sierra Leone. You don’t have a sense that people are really appropriately fearful.

And then, on top of everything else, they have very complicated burial and funeral rituals that are quite dangerous. And people are not reporting loved ones that are sick or dead, because they don’t want to be forbidden to practice traditional funereal services.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laurie, why do you think there’s been more progress in Guinea and Liberia than in Sierra Leone?  What’s the fundamental difference?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, certainly in the case of Liberia, I do think the Americans have made a difference. And American taxpayers should be very proud of our dollars well-spent in that country.

You do see a very tightly coordinated response between U.S. military, USAID, our Centers for Disease Control, and the whole set of other players on the field, and then, of course, a very, very important and prominent presence from Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, and also in Liberia a pretty terrific core group within the government that has put together great contact tracing, smart epidemiology.

They understand their epidemic. They know where it’s going. They’re able to move pretty swiftly now to put out a brushfire when it appears in some remote area. In contrast, you feel in Sierra Leone like everything, the international response, the national response, the NGO response, that all of it is late, that it’s dragging its feet and it’s just trying to get where it needs to be.

And you have these huge Ebola treatment centers that have been built and have almost no patients or almost none, just a handful, not because there’s a lack of patients that need the facilities, but because the people operating them are scared to take in all the would-be patients.

And so I actually saw people dying on the streets in Freetown. I saw little pens set up that looked like something you would put animals in outside of hospitals, in the open, blazing sun, where people who have what might be Ebola, they don’t have a blood test, but they have a high fever, and they’re vomiting or they have diarrhea, are places in these pens right on the street. And they have to wait for someone inside in the hospital to die, so they can get a bed in the hospital.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, Laurie, the pledges coming in from other countries, the WHO says it’s not happening.

LAURIE GARRETT: Yes, we’re way behind.

Huge amounts of money and personnel were pledged by many different players, many different countries back in September. The United States is way ahead, both on how much we pledged and what percentage of what we pledged has actually materialized. And some countries, my goodness, it’s abysmal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laurie Garrett, Council on Foreign Relations, just back from both Sierra Leone and Liberia in the last few weeks, we thank you.

LAURIE GARRETT: Thank you.

 

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