FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

Liberia: Ebola Extortion? Senator Says Authorities Inflated Outbreak

Monrovia — From March to April, West Africa was hit by an outbreak of the deadly Ebola Virus which claimed over 100 lives in Guinea and several other countries including Sierra Leone before few cases were reported across the Liberian-Sierra Leonean border mainly in the town of Foya in Lofa County. Senegal closed its border with Guinea after a suspected case was reported.

Authorities at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in Liberia blew the Ebola trumpet loud announcing measures to prevent the spread of the virus and at the same time appealed to the international community for support to combat the spread.

In the wake of fresh cases resulting in five deaths reported in next-door Sierra Leone this week, a senior Senator in Liberia's National Legislature, Senator Cletus Wotorson (UP, Grand Kru) believes the Ebola noise made by health authorities was much ado about and intended to extort money from donors. Senator Wotorson during a regular Senate session alleged that the pronouncement concerning EBOLA outbreak in Liberia was a ploy to attract donor funding.

While the Senate was discussing the refusal by Health and Social Welfare Minister Dr. Walter Gwenigale to reinstate two dismissed health workers, Senator Peter Coleman(CDC, Grand Kru) was making a case about the Health minister's deliberate refusal to adhere to an agreement reached between the lawmakers and the Health Minister during the mediation of the striking workers and the impact on the Country.

As Senator Coleman made his point, Senator Wotorson remarked: "What kind of EBOLA? That thing you did to get donor funding your say EBOLA in Liberia." The Senior Grand Kru senator's comments caught Senator Coleman in his tracks, forcing him to abruptly end his speech. Senator Coleman, however did not respond to Senator Wotorson's rants.

Minister Gwenigale's defiance

Senator Coleman, who heads the Senate Committee on Health, in response to a concern raised by Senator George Tengbeh(Unity Party, Lofa County) that Minister Gwenigale had refused to live up to an agreement regarding the reinstatement of the dismissed health workers during the mediation process said, the minister was adamant.

Senator Coleman told plenary that all efforts by him to prevail on the Health Minister to re-instate the dismissed health practitioners failed and asked plenary to invite the health minister to give reasons for his defiant posture.

Said Senator Coleman: "Ebola is in Sierra Leone and it threatens neighboring counties along the Sierra Leone borders. We cannot sit and handle another go-slow in the health system so; I beg the plenary that action be taken either the Minister of Health be called before this plenary to tell us why he decided to unilaterally sack the President and Secretary General of the National Health Association against the advice of the Liberian Senate."

Senator Coleman in further comments said Dr. Gwenigale had told them that he had the backing of the Executive. Unlike Senator Coleman's suggestion that the Senate cites the minister to appear, Senator Wotorson opposed the appearance of the Health Minister and recommended that the Senate write the President who is the immediate boss of the Minister to inform her about the Minister's decision.

Health Minister not God

Senator Wotorson went on to declare: "Gwenigale is not a God. Let the committee go back to him and tell him to re-instate the health workers or get back to President Sirleaf and tell her about the gravity of the situation, then to go and do something drastic that might not help the country."

For his part, Senator Armah Jallah(National Party of Liberia, Gbarpolu County) described as the lack of political will the delay in reinstating the dismissed health workers by the Health Minister.

Senator Jallah said: "We cannot allow the health sector of the country again to be sent into chaos on the basis of failure by an official to re-instate two health workers. The size of those two health workers compare to the health system of the Country, I don't think we should allow their removal from office to be able to entertain the third strike action in the health sector. The Minister of health must see reasons to ensure that these people are placed back on the payroll."

He also challenged his colleagues to ensure that there is appropriate budgetary allocation to ensure that the concerns of the health workers are addressed.

MOH Confirms Ebola Presence

Liberia's Minister of Health and Social Welfare on March 30 confirmed the presence of the Ebola virus in Liberia, disclosing that testing carried out on samples collected from suspected patients in France confirmed two positive cases of the virus. Dr. Gwenigale told FrontPageAfrica at the time that one of the deaths reported in Foya, Lofa County was confirmed from the tests from France as positive with the Ebola virus.

Said Dr. Gwenigale: "The lady who died from Foya was a result of Ebola and the woman taking care of her is still alive. However, she left Foya to come down to Firestone to her husband. We have searched and found her and has already instructed Dr. Mabande, the Medical Administrator at the Firestone Hospital to isolate her from people."

The confirmation prompted Dr. Peter Coleman appeal for an amount of US$1.2 million to help prevent the virus from spreading.

Senator Coleman said: "The process for containing an epidemic is costly and a budget has been drawn up in the tone of one point two million United Sates dollars to contain this because it entails a lot of different things ranging from public awareness to sending the specimen of cases to foreign countries for testing."

European Union Steps in

The appeal for funding heeded results with the European Commission in Brussels providing €500 000 (Euros) to help contain the spread of the deadly virus in Guinea and neighbouring countries, which include Liberia. The EU promised it was sending a health expert to Guinea to help assess the situation and liaise with the local authorities.

"We are deeply concerned about the spread of this virulent disease and our support will help ensure immediate health assistance to those affected by it," said Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. "It's vital that we act swiftly to prevent the outbreak from spreading, particularly to neighbouring countries."

The Commission stated that the funding was intended to be used by the its humanitarian partner organization Médecins Sans Frontières for clinical management, including the isolation of patients and psychosocial support, the tracing of suspected cases as well as the training and supply of personal protective equipment for health workers. It also disclosed that there will also be community-based awareness raising initiatives so as to help diminish the risk of the further spread of the virus.

"The EU is following closely how the situation develops with its Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). It is also working with international partners, notably the World Health Organization (WHO), to track the outbreak," the Commission stated in its release.

"At least 60 people have died from an outbreak of the deadly virus in Guinea with the outbreak moving from the jungle to the Capital, Conakry with unconfirmed reports that five have also died from the disease in Liberia," stated the EU release.

The announcement of Ebola presence sparked fears amongst Liberians altering the traditional Liberian way of greeting and interacting through the handshake as many took precautionary measures to ward off the disease.

Liberia emergency experience

Senator Wotorson's comments Tuesday raised further doubts regarding the response of Liberia with the prevention of diseases and emergency in the past where relief intended for affected people could not actually reach the targeted beneficiaries. Many Liberians are still arguing that the Ebola noise was a scheme by health officials to request funding from government and international organizations. With no laboratories and trained health practitioners in preventing viruses as deadly as Ebola, there are some who held the belief that Liberia lacks the capacity to fight Ebola.

New outbreak of Ebola

In the wake of lingering doubts, the Ebola virus appears to still be around the West African sub region with new cases reported in Sierra Leone. It has been reported that five people have died in Sierra Leone's first confirmed outbreak of Ebola virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday, signaling a new expansion of the disease which regional officials said had been brought under control.

Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever with a fatality rate of up to 90 percent, is believed to have killed some 185 people in neighboring Guinea and Liberia since March in the first deadly appearance of the disease in West Africa. Previously, several suspected cases of Ebola were recorded in Sierra Leone early on in the West African outbreak, but they later tested negative for the disease.

In a statement posted on its website, the WHO said the outbreak in Sierra Leone was located in an area along the country's border with Guinea's Guéckédou prefecture, where some of the earliest cases of the disease were recorded.

"Preliminary information received from the field indicates that one laboratory-confirmed case and five community deaths have been reported from Koindu chiefdom," it said. The WHO said it was deploying six experts to the area along with essential supplies.

The West African outbreak spread from a remote corner of Guinea to the capital, Conakry, and into Liberia, causing panic across a region struggling with weak healthcare systems and porous borders. A total of 258 clinical cases has been recorded in Guinea since the outbreak was first identified as Ebola, including 174 deaths - 95 confirmed, 57 probable and 57 suspected - according to the WHO.

No new cases of Ebola have been detected since April 26 in Conakry, where an outbreak could pose the biggest threat of an epidemic due to the city's role as an international travel hub. First discovered in DR Congo and Sudan in 1976, several outbreaks of this viral hemorrhagic fever have been reported in East and Central Africa, but not in West Africa.

Guinea is one of the least developed countries, periodically hit by epidemics such as meningitis, yellow fever and especially cholera. On 22 March the Guinean Government revealed that Institute Pasteur in France had identified the Ebola filovirus in samples of cases initially associated with Lassa fever. The highly contagious, human to human transmission of Ebola occurs by simple contact with blood and body fluids. No vaccine or treatment is yet available for this pathogen, one of the world's most lethal with a case fatality rate of up to 90% depending on the strain.

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