Mass. nonprofit aims to rebuild Liberia health system

A global health agency from Massachusetts is dispatching specialists to Liberia to help rebuild that country’s devastated health care system in the shadow of the Ebola crisis.

But first, officials from Management Sciences for Health said they will work with local leaders in Liberia to establish informal community care centers to move suspected Ebola patients out of hospital clinics. Sometimes, that will mean relocating patients to tents.

It is hoped that will improve their care and limit spread of the disease.

“People are afraid to go to hospitals, and health workers have stopped working because they are afraid of getting Ebola,” said Dr. Fred Hartman, Management Sciences’ infectious disease specialist.


Hartman, who is to fly to Liberia Thursday, said that even before the Ebola outbreak, Liberia’s health system struggled with malaria, childhood deaths from diarrhea and pneumonia, and women dying in childbirth.

Since the outbreak, health services not related to Ebola have largely been curtailed, said Dr. Jonathan Quick, president of Management Sciences for Health.

“We can expect that there will be more deaths from common child health problems than Ebola if we do not deal with the disruption problem,” Quick said. “The immunization rates have dropped from 80 percent to 20 percent in parts of Liberia.”

The nonprofit organization, which has helped build locally run health systems in the poorest corners of the world for the past four decades, already has nearly 1,500 staff members working in sub-Saharan Africa. In the past few years, a team in Liberia has trained a network of 750 private medicine shops that can distribute good-quality drugs to residents.

Typically, when Liberians got sick, they would not head to hospitals or physicians, Quick said. Instead, they would go to private drug sellers, where they ended up with medicine of poor quality. His organization worked with local leaders to win residents’ trust so they would use the accredited medicine shops, he said.


The organization’s goal is to have essential services up and running in 90 days.

“Businesses have shut down; people don’t have enough food,” Hartman said, comparing the Ebola epidemic to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“For two weeks, nothing got into New Orleans, and we are the richest country in the world,” Hartman said. “Imagine if Katrina hit Liberia. A massive epidemic there is like a disaster that won’t quit.”

The Ebola crisis, and reports of gaps in monitoring and caring for a man who died of the disease Wednesday in Dallas, have prompted state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez to schedule a public hearing next Thursday at the State House.

Sanchez, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, said he wants to hear from the public health commissioner and top hospital leaders to ensure that infectious disease surveillance and control measures are sufficient.

Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com.