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Liberian Health Clinics Reopen Slowly with Renewed Vigilance

FILE - health workers wearing Ebola protective gear remove the body of a man they suspect died from the Ebola virus, at a USAID, American aid Ebola treatment center on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Nov. 28, 2014.

The World Health Organization says the number of new confirmed Ebola cases in Liberia is “declining.” Liberians were once at the epicenter of this regional epidemic but several parts of the country have now gone weeks without reporting any new cases. Some medical staff are returning to work amid renewed vigilance. It’s an important sign of progress.

The Dolo Town Health Center, just outside the Liberian capital, is open.

Mothers bring their children for vaccinations against polio and measles.

People come in for tuberculosis treatment and HIV counseling. A midwife said she delivered ten babies since they reopened a month ago.

The sheer normalcy of it all has the feel of the remarkable.

Liberia’s health system collapsed in August as Ebola bore down on Monrovia. Dolo Town was one of two suburbs put under an abrupt quarantine.

The quarantine was lifted two weeks later, but the community continued to battle Ebola. Locals say more than four dozen people are believed to have died here of the virus.

Even now at year’s end, a local task force watches for sporadic cases. This newly opened clinic is not taking any chances. They built a special waiting area in front. Midwife Kebeh Karmo keeps a close watch.

“In sitting under here please we shouldn’t sit jammed up beside one another because you don’t know who is who. Ebola patient might be among us…We are protecting you and protecting ourselves,” she said.

Staff wear gloves. They screen for Ebola symptoms like fever and send those patients to a larger care center nearby.

The clinic has a stock of PPE’s just in case. That’s the full-body protective gear staff should wear if there see a suspected Ebola case.

Physician’s assistant McFarland Kerkulah said getting those PPE’s persuaded most of the nurses to return. “That is why we are having the courage to work right now,” said Kerkulah.

As Ebola surged in Liberia in mid-2014, many medical staff didn’t even have gloves. More and more of them were getting sick. Health workers went on strike. Most clinics shut down. People were afraid to go the clinics still open.

It was tragedy multiplied. The government said people would die of treatable, preventable causes - childbirth complications, malaria, respiratory illness, high blood pressure.

International Ebola response ramped up in Liberia in October. At year’s end, the epidemic is not over, but the worst of it may be.

A few big hospitals have reopened. Small community clinics like this one are edging open their doors.

“Good morning. I know everybody wash their hands before. If you didn’t do that then you need to do that. [hearing water as people wash hands] If you didn’t do it, we not allow you in,” said Kerkulah.

Every morning, the Dolo Town Health Center gives out tickets. Staff triage cases giving priority to the most critical. This used to be a 24-hour clinic but now they see just 25 people per day. It’s a safety measure. Non-urgent cases are told to return the next day.

Kerkulah is a strong believer in what he calls “holistic care.”

“We want to say thank you for coming and we want everybody to be relaxed. Everyone will get treatment before one o’clock,” he said.

Kerkulah says they will soon start the day’s consulations but first. "We will ask one person to give us a short song so we will start."

And with that, a new day begins.