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article imageLiberia's 'white shield' reminiscent of Black Death

By Karen Graham     Aug 17, 2014 in Health
Monrovia, Liberia's largest slum, West Point, was the epicenter of a looting spree late Saturday when looters broke into the quarantine center, taking bloodied sheets and mattresses and sending the 30 patients into the crowd.
There is a real fear now that the dreaded Ebola virus will spread through the slum and into the capital itself. Tolbert Nyenswah, the assistant health minister, said on Sunday the violence started because people were angry that people suspected of having Ebola were being brought from other parts of Monrovia to the holding center.
"All between the houses you could see people fleeing with items looted from the patients," the official said, adding that he now feared "the whole of West Point will be infected." One resident, Richard Kieh, said some of the items being taken were visibly stained with blood, excrement and vomit. West Point slum is home for more than 50,000 people.
Even though Liberian officials say that the West Point slum has not been put under quarantine, according to the Associated Press today, in an attempt to further control the continuing spread of Ebola, the government has taken an unusual course of action by quarantining villages at the epicenter of the virus, creating a "white shield."
This action evokes images of the "plague villages" in Medieval Europe during the time of the Black Death. Residents of these villages have no access to food or medical supplies, literally no access to the outside world. They have the choice of staying, and possible starving to death or succumbing to illness, or sneaking away from the quarantine and spreading the virus even further.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf imposed emergency measures, including the community quarantine and a “cordon sanitaire,” a system of medical roadblocks to keep the virus contained and to stop its spread into more populated areas. Troops have been deployed under "Operation White Shield," to stop people from abandoning their homes and infecting others.
“There has to be concern that people in quarantined areas are left to fend for themselves,” said Mike Noyes, head of humanitarian response at ActionAid UK. “Who is going to be the police officer who goes to these places? There’s a risk that these places become plague villages.”
Aid workers are worried that if support doesn't arrive soon, the undergrowth that is already encroaching into the villages will eventually overtake and swallow what once were houses, turning the areas into a dense jungle again. Tarnue Karbbar, a worker for charity Plan International based in Lofa County in northern Liberia, says, “If sufficient medication, food and water are not in place, the community will force their way out to fetch food and this could lead to further spread of the virus."
Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, told reporters last week in Geneva, "We are not talking weeks; we're talking about months to get an upper hand on the epidemic." With the population uneducated in what the Ebola virus is, and what it can do, Liu said more international help is needed to "follow up on cases and educate the public about what the disease and the outbreak entails.''
The World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement over the weekend that their staff members "at the outbreak sites see evidence that the number of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak."
World Food Program spokesman Steve Taravella, in a telephone interview with The Age said over 0ne million people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are in need of food aid. Food, including cooked meals is being transported into those countries by truck. Not discussed were the logistics of how the food would get distributed once the trucks reached their destinations.
Fear is the biggest virus that needs to be contained right now. Ignorance of the disease, the scary way people end up dying, and belief in magical cures like hot water or nano-silver particles are all part of the myths surrounding the Ebola virus. Educating a population that is too frightened to listen will be the biggest task yet.
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