Liberia’s chief medical officer discusses Ebola with UBC

Francis Kateh, Liberia’s chief medical officer and deputy minister of health, visited UBC yesterday to discuss his team’s hard-fought victory against Ebola in Liberia.

“We are [still] at the edge, but we are cautiously optimistic,” said Kateh, referring to the ongoing crisis in Liberia’s neighbouring countries, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Kateh spoke to a crowd of just under 50 people of all ages, many of whom participated in a question period at the end. Allison Liu, a fifth year student, asked Ketah what he would have changed about their approach. The answer was two things: shoring up their spotty healthcare system before the outbreak and recognizing the strength of community earlier on.

“We both came here to get a first hand account from someone who’d been on the ground,” said Liu, about herself and her third-year friend Himani Bhatnagar. “First-hand accounts like this are a far better opportunity to understand an issue rather than relying solely on second-hand information."

After the first case of Ebola in Liberia in late March 2014 the virus spread quickly, peaking in that country at 300 to 400 new cases a month in August and September and leading to the "longest, and most complex outbreak since Ebola first emerged in 1976", according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the WHO, Liberia identified 3,150 laboratory-confirmed cases of Ebola and 4,806 dead before the country was officially declared Ebola free on May 9, 2015, 42 days after the last laboratory-confirmed case was buried.

Kateh emphasized collaboration with local influencers and the community as a key component to their success.

"The key to fighting any disaster is community engagement,” said Kateh. “If the community is not involved, you can have a brilliant idea but you'll get nowhere."

Liberia learned that the hard way, however, after beginning with a military-led strategy. Ketah said after a civilian shooting they quickly abandoned that strategy in favour of the collaborative community approach.

The 2014 outbreak was different than any before it because an Ebola survivor started the epidemic. Authorities now know that Ebola survivors are still contagious through sexual intercourse up to three months after -- before that it was only known to pass through touch from a live or dead host.

“It changed everything we knew about Ebola,” said Kateh.

Another unique challenge of the 2014 outbreak was the safety of the healthcare staff, who are overworked. WHO recommends 23 healthcare workers per 10,000 people. Ketah says it’s three per 10,000 in Liberia, while the African average is 2.6 in 10,000.

“That difference shows you the deficit we have in Liberia,” said Ketah. Those workers also faced shortages of personal protective equipment, which contributed to a high volume of healthcare workers falling ill. In total 378 health workers grew sick and 192 died.

As of June 17, 2015, the WHO reports 11,193 total deaths from the 2014 Ebola outbreak including probable, confirmed and suspected.