Every day, Saran Kaba Jones calls her family in Liberia to make sure they have not contracted the deadly Ebola virus ravaging the country. Her relatives have already seen several loved ones succumb to the virus, and they worry it’s a matter of time before it hits one of them.
Jones is the founder and chief executive officer of FACE Africa, a Boston nonprofit that works to bring clean water to Liberia but now is hoping to help slow the spread of Ebola. Her group, along with other Boston-based organizations, is shipping medical supplies and spearheading education campaigns.
“There’s a lot of fear. People are really afraid,” said Jones, who was in Liberia in May and June. “Both the government and people in general weren’t really taking the outbreak seriously until it really started to rapidly spread and the number of casualties started to increase. That’s when we all started to really wake up and pay attention.”
Since February, Ebola has claimed almost 1,000 lives and infected more than 1,700 people in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization, which last Friday declared the outbreak an international public health emergency.
Other Boston organizations are collecting medical gear and training and deploying health workers to treat Liberians infected with the hemorrhagic fever, which is spread through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids.
Liberia has only 264 doctors, or only one doctor per 163,000 people; Massachusetts, by comparison, has 462 doctors per 100,000 people, said Dr. Michelle Niescierenko, director of the Boston-based Global Health Program, which trains doctors in vulnerable regions, including Liberia.
Although much of Niescierenko’s work is in Liberia, she and other Global Health Program members had to leave the country in June because of safety concerns. The organization is now collecting personal protection equipment for physicians and residents, and it has launched a crowd-sourcing campaign for donations.
1: The number of doctors per 163,000 people in Liberia
“On a day-to-day basis, they need knowledge to protect themselves and fight rumors, and they need health care facilities that are equipped to care for them in a safe environment for both the patients and the health care staff,” Niescierenko, a physician at Boston Children’s Hospital, wrote in an e-mail from Ghana, where she is working until she can return to Liberia.
The Global Health Program is partnering with Liberian Metro Boston, a local group of immigrants and their families that has spearheaded grass-roots fund-raising campaigns and collected medical supplies, such as gloves, sanitizing alcohol, and gowns, for budget-strapped health workers in Liberia.
The groups have also organized a shipping service that enables people to send supplies and donations for free to hospitals, schools, and orphanages.
Last Mile Health, which has offices in Boston and Liberia, is working with the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to supply trained doctors to treat victims of the Ebola crisis, said Lisha McCormick, the organization’s chief development officer.
Liberian clergy across Massachusetts are also organizing prayers and donation drives, and Liberian Metro Boston said it hopes to fly the Liberian flag at half staff over the State House on Aug. 24, Liberia’s Flag Day.
“We want to be Liberians helping Liberians, but we cannot do it on our own,” said Jassie-Fredcia Senwah, general secretary and youth liaison for Liberia Metro Boston. “We need other communities to assist us in any way that they can.”
Boston health workers have seen the disease’s devastating effects firsthand, further inspiring them to mobilize colleagues and Massachusetts residents to help stop the outbreak.
Niescierenko has worked in Liberia for seven years, so she developed close ties with the country’s hospital workers. She said she has seen many of her friends — Liberian physicians and nurses — die from the virus, and she knows others who go to work every day even though they fear for their safety.
“Liberia is such a small, tight-knit community that we all know someone who did lose a loved one,” Jones said. “And that is devastating — when it hits so close to home.”