The global effort to battle the Ebola outbreak in Africa is getting a new player: Partners in Health, the Boston-based international aid organization.
Six leaders of the group are scheduled to arrive in Liberia on Tuesday evening to lay the groundwork for a new push against the virulent disease in rural areas of that country and Sierra Leone.
While international aid has focused on the fast-growing epidemic in cities, Partners in Health intends to set up treatment units in the remote countryside where most people live, places where getting to the nearest clinic requires an eight-hour walk or longer.
“We expect we’ll be able to bring in scores of providers within very short order and also to train hundreds on the ground,” said Paul Farmer, the organization’s cofounder and chief strategist, who will be among those traveling to the region.
During the current trip, the six visitors will meet with local authorities and assess the needs before returning home to marshal resources. The agency has launched an appeal for staff and supplies, looking for nurses, physicians, lab consultants, logistical managers, and others.
Partners in Health will be teaming with two local organizations that it has aided and advised in the past, Last Mile Health in Grand Gedeh, Liberia, and Wellbody Alliance in Kono, Sierra Leone. The goal will be to treat Ebola cases and work with local authorities to contain the spread of the disease, which has claimed more than 2,400 lives this year.
Partners in Health will work with these agencies to deploy and expand their cadre of community health workers, local people who are trained and employed to bring health information and services to remote areas. These people already serve as trusted liaisons to the health care system. To fight Ebola, they can help identify illness, bring sick people to treatment, and track those who may have been exposed.
“This model will really reach people, destigmatize the disease, and get people the care they need at any earlier time point,” said Dr. Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of Partners in Health and one of the six headed to Liberia. “We’re hoping to get somewhat ahead of the epidemic in those areas.”
Dr. Raj Panjabi, cofounder and CEO of Last Mile Health, said that about 15 possible or confirmed cases of Ebola have been identified among the half-million people living in Liberia’s six southern counties. But two-thirds of those cases occurred in the past three weeks, suggesting an accelerating spread of the illness. And there is not one Ebola treatment center in the region.
In the process of coping with Ebola, Panjabi said, it is hoped that Partners in Health will strengthen the health care system in Liberia and Sierra Leone for the long haul.
“We are going to do our best to make sure that this is a serious long-term commitment,” Farmer said.
Farmer also wants to demonstrate that Ebola doesn’t need to be so deadly. Historically, he said, “there’s been no overlap with Ebola and modern medicine.” But the zero fatality rate among the American doctors who got proper medical care after being exposed to the disease shows that good medical care save lives.
“Boston has a huge amount of medical resources, and in my experience if they’re deployed wisely, you can save a lot of lives,” Farmer said.
Partners in Health is not primarily an emergency-response group, although it has experience with emergencies, such as the Haiti earthquake. But Farmer said he felt a “pervasive anxiety” about the needlessly high death rate from Ebola and now is “relieved” to be heading out there to help. His first stop will be a meeting with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.
The agency’s board approved this significant expansion of its mission late last week. Partners in Health has a presence in Haiti, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, Mexico, Russia, Peru, and the Navajo nation in the southwestern United States.
Farmer added that Ebola is not the only concern in the region.
“The other thing that was so disturbing — what happens to people who have malaria or women in childbirth?” he said. “If the health centers close, as many of them have, they don’t get basic primary care. . . . How many kids are going to die from malaria, how many women are going to die in childbirth, because of Ebola and fear of Ebola?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect number of aid workers traveling to Liberia. Six workers are going.