"By this time last year we were down in the trenches", recalled Winnie Scott-McDonald, the Administrator of Liberia's largest referral hospital, the John F. Kennedy Medical Center. She was speaking at the signing ceremony of a grant agreement between the U.S.-based energy company, Chevron, and the JFK Medical Center for the launch of the Center of Excellence for Infectious Disease Control. The new center will build capacity in order to treat, prevent and control infectious diseases as part of a post-Ebola recovery plan. "Fellow Liberians, the world responded. But you did it; we did it. We must show the world how we stop the chain of transmission in its tracks", she told her compatriots.
Scott-McDonald said the center will leverage the expertise of national and international contributors from diverse backgrounds, including academic institutions and other multilateral donors. As part of its "core functions", it will train doctors and other health professionals, including community leaders who were amongst the first responders; it will also provide clinical care and conduct research around infectious diseases. "We want to design models to show the world what Liberia has done", she said.
Also attending the ceremony was Liberia's Health Minister, Brenice Dahn, who lamented how the disease quickly spread amongst health workers during the initial stages of the outbreak. "When Ebola struck," she said, "our fragmented health system collapsed". Dahn wants health workers who lost their lives to be honored by Liberians building the capacity to protect surviving health workers with the "tools and training" needed to prevent future outbreaks. "We must work in a coordinated way to build a system that does not break under pressure", she told health administrators in the room. Dahn, who was formerly Liberia's Chief Medical Officer, placed herself under quarantine during the height of the outbreak after her assistant died of Ebola.
An unprecedented number of health workers were infected earlier on in the epidemic. According to the World Health Organization, this was due to several factors, including the shortage of personal protective equipment and far too few medical staff for such a large outbreak. Dahn said the country must ensure that this does not happen again by building a health system that is not only well-staffed, "but resilient in times of crisis".
The center, which is co-funded by Chevron Liberia, will be the country's first line of defense against future outbreaks, organizers say. "We know that this was an important request from President Sirleaf of President Obama", said U.S Ambassador Deborah Malac . While thanking Chevron, she said the U.S. government was also studying what it can do to help. "We will be working very closely with Doctor Dahn and the staff of the Ministry of Health to create a robust and resilient public health infrastructure".
Chevron's Country Manager Karl Cottrel said his company recognizes that continued education around public health and how to combat infectious diseases, including Ebola, is critical: "It has clearly got the attention all the way up through the corporate ladder of Chevron." He called on other partners to come in. Singling out the Health Education and Relief Through Teaching project, which works to improve care at JFK by training local health workers, Cottrel said, "HEARTT, if you want to step forward and provide some of that clinical care, we absolutely welcome that".
Liberia was worst affected by the world's largest outbreak of Ebola, which has caused thousands of deaths in the West African region. The U.S. government eventually sent in thousands of troops to help corral the disease. Scott-McDonald thanked the U.S. Ambassador: "Madam Ambassador, you are more than a friend....when we heard the Apache helicopters flying, we knew we were in good hands".