As doctors in the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta fight to save the lives of two Americans infected with Ebola overseas, in Liberia, the epicenter of the outbreak, health officials are still struggling to contain the deadly virus.
Liberia, where the death toll has risen to 282 people, is a ground zero for the catastrophic outbreak. Bodies of those infected are occasionally found on neighborhood streets, some buried in shallow graves, others, left to rot in hospital morgues.
Mark Korvaya is a Liberian government health worker fighting an uphill and increasingly dangerous battle. He supervises one of three teams that have the grim task of burying the bodies of those who have died from Ebola. First, a separate team has to take sample of the deceased’s blood to test for the disease.
Korvaya's burial team is well trained in how to protect themselves from the virus, but many other workers in clinics and hospitals are not well trained, putting them at risk for being infected themselves. In addition, they have become targets for violent protests. Angry residents blame health workers for spreading the disease, or for not being quick enough to respond to requests to confiscate potentially contagious bodies.
Korvaya believes the work of sampling bodies is important, because confirming an Ebola infection in a dead body helps officials track, and hopefully stop, the virus.
Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses on Earth. Highly contagious, it kills up to 90 percent of the people it infects and spreads through contact with bodily fluids like blood, sweat and vomit. Symptoms begin with fever, vomiting, severe blood loss. Death comes quickly, often within a few days, for all but a lucky few.
When Korvaya and his team enter a neighborhood stricken with Ebola, they suit up in full hazmat gear because even the slightest contact with the virus can be deadly.
“That’s why they say don’t shake hands with anybody because you can never know who it is that you see that has been touching somebody,” said one health worker.
The Liberian government’s health department workers are overworked and often, under-trained. They simply aren’t able to work fast enough to keep up with the dozens of people who die each day and they face different challenges every place they visit.
In Clara Town, a small neighborhood in Liberia, enraged residents were begging the government to take away the bodies of those who have died. But in New Kru Town, another neighborhood, residents were confused when a testing team arrived. They explained that one deceased was a Muslim and tradition mandates that bodies should be buried the day the person died.
The testing team wanted to take a sample of blood and make sure those coming out to mourn their dead wouldn’t become infected with Ebola. The family agreed to allow the body to remain in the home until the team got back test results.
Liberia is a country in chaos, where people are terrified and full of suspicion. Many of the infected refuse to seek treatment, fearing they will be mistreated or turned away at clinics, so they lock themselves inside their homes.
“It’s not easy,” said a resident named Ezekiel Kumeh. “Lost mother, lost a cousin, and then brother and sister are almost at the point of death and they’re refusing to go seek medication... We’re just going to leave it with God. There’s nothing we can do more than this.”
In this poverty-stricken nation, the healthcare system is stretched perilously thin. For every 100,000 people there is only one doctor, the worst ratio in all of Africa. In the U.S., there is on average, one doctor for every 413 people.
Doctors in the U.S. are hoping than an experimental Ebola treatment, a serum called Z-Mapp, may save the lives of the two Americans, Nancy Writebol and Ken Brantly, brought back with Ebola. It’s still untested and unapproved, likely years from widespread use. So for those caught in the outbreak, an Ebola cure remains a distant and elusive hope.