Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf thanks local donors, such as Paul Allen and The Gates Foundation, but cautions that future Ebola outbreaks could spread beyond Africa if health care doesn’t improve.
The Ebola epidemic exposed the weaknesses in Libera’s threadbare health systems, but also left the West African nation better prepared for future outbreaks and with a greater sense of solidarity, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said during her first visit to Seattle.
“There is no 100 percent guarantee, but we feel confident our response capability can handle any outbreak,” she said.
The country now has an emergency-operations center, funded largely by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and teams of health workers trained to recognize and treat Ebola. Regional hubs are in place to quickly distribute emergency gear, and most health centers have new triage systems to identify and quarantine people who might be infected, Johnson Sirleaf said in an interview Friday.
The World Health Organization declared Liberia free of Ebola in early September, but sporadic cases continue to flare in the neighboring countries of Guinea and Sierra Leone.
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“That’s why we have to keep these preventive measures in place,” Johnson Sirleaf said.
The country’s 76-year-old, Harvard-educated president traveled to Seattle this past week to present the keynote address at an annual fundraiser in Bellevue for the Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR), an independent, nonprofit lab focused on diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, which are among the biggest killers in Liberia and other African nations.
As the first woman elected to lead an African nation and a recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to help Liberia recover from a brutal civil war, Johnson Sirleaf drew a record crowd to the Saturday event.
During her visit, she thanked Seattle-based organizations and individuals who contributed to the fight against Ebola. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated $50 million, including funds to test a promising Ebola vaccine, while Allen pledged $100 million for everything from protective medical gear to self-contained modules that can be used to airlift infected medical workers.
“Their response is something that touched all of us,” she said.
During her visit, Johnson Sirleaf said she hopes to lay the groundwork for research collaborations between her country and CIDR and other Northwest organizations. Liberian scientists and medical workers can contribute what they learned from the outbreak, while experts from Washington can provide the innovative technology and approaches the region is known for, she said.
“We need scientific investigations on the disease, on our response, on our successes,” Johnson Sirleaf said.
With about $35 million in annual grant funding, CIDR (formerly known as Seattle BioMed) employs 250 scientists and staff at its South Lake Union lab. Projects include development of a malaria vaccine, better methods to diagnose tuberculosis, and basic studies of HIV and other diseases.
More than 1 million Liberians are infected with malaria and about 30,000 are living with HIV/AIDS, said John Aitchison, the center’s scientific director. “The work that we do is really designed to develop long-term solutions to these diseases,” he said.
While many of the aid groups that flooded into Liberia during the epidemic have left or scaled back their operations, more permanent investments continue to pay off, Johnson Sirleaf said.
The Allen-funded emergency-operations center, in the capital city of Monrovia, is being used for research, as well as for training health workers and even immunizing children, whose routine shots for measles and other diseases were disrupted by the outbreak, added Deputy Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah, who was also present at the interview.
But the country still lacks a modern, well-equipped hospital, and has only about 75 doctors to serve a population of 4.3 million people.
Nevertheless, Liberia was the first of the hardest-hit nations to bring Ebola under control, despite suffering the highest death toll.
Johnson Sirleaf’s initial response, which included closing the country’s borders and mobilizing security forces to quarantine crowded, urban neighborhoods, drew criticism both in and outside Liberia.
But her country had never dealt with a disease as terrifying as Ebola, she pointed out.
“The effect is so rapid and disastrous and horrifying,” she said. “We panicked.”
In some ways, though, the outbreak drew people together.
“Fear brought unity,” said Johnson Sirleaf. “Everybody came together to fight this common enemy.”
Thousands of community-health workers were trained to conduct basic surveillance, checking people’s temperatures and tracing contacts of infected people. Now, those workers can help with other health-care initiatives.
But without basic infrastructure improvements, such as better roads and more reliable power supply, health care is still out of the reach of many Liberians, she said.
Without strong health systems, the gains against Ebola may be tenuous. Liberia was first declared free of the disease in May, but then a handful of cases emerged this summer. The sole Ebola death in the U.S. was a Liberian man who flew from Monrovia to Dallas to visit family.
“The message we sent to everybody is that Ebola is not just a threat to Liberia and West Africa. It’s a global threat,” Johnson Sirleaf said. “Today it’s Liberia, but tomorrow it could be any other country, including the U.S.”