18 August 2014

Liberia: 'More People Beginning to Believe Ebola Is Real' - Health Minister

interview

Efforts to stop Ebola in Liberia suffered a huge blow after 17 patients reportedly fled a quarantine center in the capital Monrovia after it was attacked by local residents.

DW's Asumpta Lattus spoke to Dr. Walter Gwenigale, Liberia's Minister of Health and Social Welfare.

What was behind Saturday's attack on the Ebola isolation center?

Because Ebola is in the most populated areas of our capital, it has become very important for us to find places to hold people until we can diagnose them and try to move them into treatment centers.

There is a community called West Point in which we had identified a place, with the residents of the area, to hold some people until we could decide what to do with them. But the condition was that the place would be used for community members only. The information I have is that it appears that the community people got worried that other people from other communities were being taken there and they did not like that. The attack was to prevent the taking to that place of other people other than their community members. The community is helping us to retrieve the things that were taken from the center.

The problem that we have is that, if we had people there who were already infected, and those people had been on mattresses, and they had their secretions and body fluids on those mattresses, people who took those mattresses and the bed sheets away have contaminated themselves. In addition, they have taken those things into their homes and they have also contaminated other people in those homes.

Where are the patients who reportedly fled the camp?

They are in the community. Even the people that were considered sick are now back in the community. We are trying to get them back out of the community. We don't know exactly at which homes they are but we are trying to find them. Some people are coming back and the community members are cooperating with the health workers and with the government and we are trying to bring back and retrieve the things that were removed.

But getting the things back is not important for me, what is important is getting the people who have contaminated themselves and maybe spread the disease further which is the most dangerous thing that we have to deal with. It is unfortunate that this happened.

The attackers evidently refuse to believe that the epidemic poses a serious threat. Do people in Liberia still think that way?

That is one of the reasons why we have been having problems controlling the disease. There had been a lot of denial initially. Now more and more people are beginning to believe that the disease is real. There was also a lot of resistance when we told people do not play with dead bodies, don't wash dead bodies, people did not listen. They went ahead with bathing dead bodies. Yes, there have been denials; there has been complete rejection of what we were trying to do. But as the disease started spreading all over the city, people are now beginning to believe, there are many more people trying to do something about controlling it.

In countries where they have had this before, the disease was limited to rural areas and not in densely populated areas like we have now. So it will take time but now many more people believe that this is real and are trying to help to control it.

Walter Gwenigale is Liberia's Minister of Health and Social Welfare.

Interview: Asumpta Lattus

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