A spreading epidemic on the ground
In recent weeks, the Ebola crisis has begun to rapidly intensify in Liberia and across West Africa, with the most recent estimates from CDC suggesting that the virus could infect anywhere from 550,000 to 1.4 million people across the region over the coming months.
In Liberia, where the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) has had an office since 2006, Ebola has infected approximately 3,362 people and claimed the lives of 1,768. In response to this evolving global threat, the past few weeks have brought a new wave of international commitments and the deployment of 3,000 US troops to the region.
This welcome support will hopefully help curb the spread of the Ebola virus and allow the affected countries to begin a long and difficult recovery process. A key part of this support is an unprecedented supply of medical equipment – gloves, facemasks, plastic aprons and other items – that help protect healthcare workers from contracting the disease as they tried to save the lives of their patients.
Millions of these supplies – often termed ‘personal protective equipment’, or PPE – have now been shipped to West Africa. But at the beginning of the crisis, warehouses in the region were verging on empty, and health workers did not have the tools they needed to protect themselves from infection.
Getting supplies to Liberia
This was partly a supply issue, as countries and NGOs alike scrambled to purchase large quantities of PPE. And it was partly a logistics issue, as the near-complete cessation of commerial flights to Liberia in late July/early August exacerbated the challenge of bringing any supplies into the country.
As a stopgap measure, CHAI – with the generous support of the Norwegian government – was able to mobilize a shipment of PPE to help fill this gap until other, larger orders could be coordinated and shipped to Liberia.
Direct Relief – a California-based NGO specializing in emergency medical aid – was one of the first organizations to recognize the threat of a significant PPE stock out. Several weeks ago, they began to explore how to procure and ship critical PPE items to the most affected countries as quickly as possible. And through a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action, organizations like Direct Relief and Last Mile Health committed to airlift 100 tons of medical supplies to West Africa to help us combat Ebola.
Through their incredible dedication, and in partnership with the Ministries of Health in the affected countries, they were able to rapidly mobilize a chartered plane to deliver an enormous quantity of supplies to Sierra Leone and Liberia to help fuel the Ebola response over the longer term.
More importantly, they were able to help deliver the right supplies for the Ebola response.
Getting the right supplies to Liberia
Although it’s difficult to say no to donations, the health system in Liberia faces many constraints and does not have the capacity to store supplies that can’t immediately be directed to the Ebola response.
It is essential that the supplies that fill up the few flights that still come to Liberia are the ones that will actually help save the lives of health workers and patients alike.
For the chartered flight, the Ministry of Health in Liberia was able to select from Direct Relief’s existing stock as well as other items that the Direct Relief team actively sought for us (such as hooded coveralls).
Although it took more time, energy, and flexibility for Direct Relief to engage with the government and partners – as opposed to simply making a general donations – we were able to ensure that the supplies that were coming in were the right ones, and wouldn’t go to waste.
Using the supplies to protect health workers and save lives
After unloading, the crew disinfected the pallets on which the supplies were shipped prior to reloading them on the plane. It was a good reminder that simply having supplies is insufficient as they must also be used correctly to avoid providing a sense of false security.
As hard as it was, getting the supplies to Liberia was the easy part. Now we have to use them.
The Ministry of Health and partners will work together to distribute the PPE nationwide with all deliberate speed, and teams will simultaneously continue to conduct thorough training for health workers on proper usage.
Thanks to tremendous effort from all involved parties, these supplies may help stop the spread of the Ebola virus.