Joye Collins Phillips Returns To Liberia, Where Ebola Has Changed Life -- Perhaps Forever
January 5, 2015
"Ebola, Ebola, Ebola -- that's all I hear."
Those were the words a Liberian child said to Joye Collins Phillips before Phillips left her home there in October and came to Helena to visit her brother Wilmot Collins.
Phillips quoted the child at a November panel discussion in Helena about what was happening in her home country.
The Ebola virus has changed Liberia, perhaps forever, Phillips said.
Just how much, Phillips will discover within a few days when she returns.
She left Friday morning on her journey back to Liberia, where she works as a hospital administrator in Margibi County.
One thing that's changed -- she can no longer fly Delta Airlines from Helena to Liberia, she said, because the airline stopped flying to Liberia at the end of August.
It's disrupted her own family: Her two children -- Jamelle, 17, and Joey, 12 -- are staying in Helena for the rest of the school year.
And it's certainly changed the way the Liberian medical profession does business, she said.
It remains to be seen what the impact will be on what she calls "Our happy-go-lucky attitude."
According to the latest Centers for Disease Control figures released Dec. 31, there have been 8,018 cases of Ebola in Liberia, with 3,423 deaths.
According to figures Phillips has, at least 363 of these cases were health care workers, and 174 of them died.
Altogether 546 health workers in West Africa were infected, with 310 of them dying, according to a recent New York Times article.
Since Phillips arrived in Helena Oct. 11, much has changed in Liberia because of Ebola, but also in the rest of the world, she said in an interview this past week. For instance, the Lewis and Clark County Health Department knew exactly what to do and contacted her when she arrived in town, monitoring her health for the required 21 days.
Phillips, who lived in the United States for 18 years, fled to U.S. in 1990 after civil war broke out in Liberia. She, her husband and her two children moved back to Liberia in 2007.
Her children, who make regular summer visits to Helena to visit their uncle, Wilmot Collins, will be staying the school year because all of the schools in Liberia closed.
"No schools are open still," said Phillips. And when they do reopen, they won't be back to normal.
Half of her daughter Jamelle's classmates have left the country to attend school elsewhere, Phillips said.
"Ebola has disrupted our whole life," Phillips said.
Although "the Ebola crisis in Liberia has really decreased" she said, with some areas of the country declared "Ebola-free," there are still concerns about the climbing number of cases in Sierra Leone, which shares a border with Liberia. "There's a huge chance of reinfection," she said.
The hospital where she works has had no Ebola cases for two months, Phillips said. "We think we've done well. We have to continue what we've been doing. We're still not shaking hands."
Instead, Liberians, who like to hug and kiss when greeting each other, developed "the Ebola foot shake."
When she returns home, Phillips plans to return to her "sedentary lifestyle," she said. She was self-isolating herself because of her job at the hospital. She didn't want people to fear that she might be spreading infection.
Although she loved to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from the market, she stopped.
"I cut out all my fresh vegetables and fruits," she said, switching to frozen foods instead.
The spread of the disease
One of the ways the virus spread, she said, was "certain tribes ate bats that are a vector of the disease. Monkeys and other wild animals used as food can also carry the virus.
"If you cook it thoroughly, you kill it," she added, but the virus can spread through the handling of the meat.
It's also spread by contact with bodily fluids from a person infected with the disease.
When the first Ebola cases began showing up at her hospital in March and other Liberian hospitals, the staffs weren't at all prepared, Phillips said in a November Independent Record story.
With international medical assistance, her hospital was able to quickly determine that it was dealing with Ebola, which was first identified in 1976 in East Africa.
Her hospital happened to have access to hazardous material (hazmat) suits that they were able to use to outfit medical staff.
Other hospitals were not so lucky.
"Liberia was not ready," she said. "It increased exponentially."
At first, the international response lagged. Two organizations that were quickly on the scene, she said, were Doctors Without Borders (also known as MSF) and Samaritan's Purse.
Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization also came in.
"The response was lacking initially," said Phillips.
"We were not a sanitary people," she added. "We ate raw food. We didn't wash our hands."
By October, when she left, that was changing, she said. "Every man, woman and child was washing their hands."
On one of her final days in Helena before returning to Liberia, Phillips admitted, "There is always a little fear. When I came here there was very little hope. At the beginning, the death rate was 90 percent," of those who got Ebola. "Now it's 40 to 50 percent."
International help also meant Ebola treatment facilities are now set up in every county in Liberia, she said. There is also proper protective gear for medical staff, food and liquids for hospital patients (which had been in short supply), and more supplies of chlorine bleach disinfectant.
Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, located in Hamilton, has also been among those on the front lines in Liberia -- both in outbreak areas and in researching the disease and a vaccine.
Bob Fischer, a contract science with RML, spoke on the same Helena panel as Phillips in November, describing the work he did as part of a three-person RML team in Monrovia, Liberia, at a hospital known as ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa).
Fischer, who served in the Peace Corps in Liberia in the 1980s, said he had little chance to see Ebola's larger impact on Monrovia.
"When we were there we didn't have an opportunity to go out and see anything," he said. "We would work (typically 10 hours in the lab) and then go back to the hotel."
They were testing up to 80 blood samples per day to determine if patients were indeed infected with Ebola, by checking for Ebola RNA in the samples.
The team took numerous safety precautions, he said, testing the samples only after the virus had been inactivated and wearing layers of special protective gear when needed.
"We knew what we were getting into," he said. While there was some risk, "we weren't dealing directly with patients or people on the street."
According to RML's communication director, Ken Pekoc, RML has been studying Ebola and similar viruses since 2009, "trying to better understand their life and transmission cycles, and to develop therapies and vaccines to stop the spread of disease."
Since August, RML has sent volunteer teams of two to three people to Liberia to test patient blood samples, he wrote in an email.
"Roughly a dozen scientists from RML have been to Liberia, and the mission is to continue into March," he wrote.
What researchers hope to learn is what makes the virus go away for six months or four years with no recorded outbreaks and then suddenly reappear, Fischer said. "Where does it go? What keeps it viable?"
How Liberia has changed
Following the Ebola outbreak, Phillips stopped going to church back in June and to other areas where the public gathers.
In fact, a national curfew in Liberia was just lifted to allow church-goers to attend services on New Year's Eve, according to a BBC news report.
Other popular places, like Liberia's version of sports bars, which are little huts that have TVs and serve liquor ("zinc shacks"), were also closed down, said Phillips. So were Internet cafes.
A major national day of celebration, President's Day in November, a time when a lot of people hold beach parties, was canceled.
She doesn't know what Ebola's impact has been on Liberian agriculture and small businesses.
One of the positive things that changed in recent months, in addition to better hygiene, is that Ebola orphans are no longer wandering in the streets. More relatives are stepping forward to take the children in, she said, and orphanages are also helping.
And, the government has done public education in communities, so people who have been treated in the hospital and are now Ebola-free are no longer ostracized in their communities.
For those who want to help, Phillips suggests contacting Friends of Liberia, Doctors Without Borders or Samaritan's Purse.
Source: Independent Record helenair.com/news
Source: Independent Record/a>