News of the resurgence of Ebola cases in Liberia weeks after it was declared free of the virus has been worrying and even discouraging for many people in Guinea and Sierra Leone. These countries are still attempting to reach zero cases, but continue to see more than 20 new ones a week. But in Liberia the mood is confident, as Liberians feel that they have been there before and can handle it.
In Liberia, social mobilisers are intensifying community outreach. They go house-to-house to reinforce information about the threat of Ebola and prevention measures, while actively searching for more cases.
Their campaign primarily targets 16,350 people in 3,120 households in Unification Town, Margibi County near the Monrovia international airport where Liberia’s first new Ebola-infected person and subsequent two cases – linked to the first – were identified since the country was declared Ebola free on 9 May.
Dozens of community mobilisers gather daily in the new Emergency Operations Centre under tents erected on the grounds of the Unification Clinic in Margibi. When I visited there yesterday, they were preparing their day’s intervention.
In one area, a group was getting advice on how to approach families in a sensitive manner. In another, they were discussing the previous two days’ surveillance activities, summarised on a white board listing actions taken or to be taken to track and monitor people at risk. In the race to stop the chain of transmission of the virus, tracking people who had contacts with the confirmed Ebola cases is crucial.
The 17-year-old male, who was the country’s first known Ebola case since it was declared free of the virus, had died in the area. More than 140 people are listed as contacts, including almost 30 who are considered at high-risk. If more cases are identified in Liberia, it is likely to come from the latter list, as was the case with other two confirmed cases being treated in Monrovia.
While the full extent of the transmission will be known after the 21 days-incubation period, new cases reappearing less than two months after Liberia was declared Ebola free may be a blessing in disguise. Response capacity is still in place, including experienced citizens who were easy to remobilise and eager to help.
Furthermore, they give a glimpse into what a possible endemic Ebola situation in West Africa may look like: a few cases quickly contained by decisive community mobilisation in affected areas. In the meantime, as acting special representative of the UN Secretary General and Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMeer) Peter Graaff says, the real test of how well the system is working again in Liberia will be in the next few weeks.