A Lancaster father-of-two is helping in the ongoing bid to support families living among the deadly Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Guardian reporter Gayle Rouncivell finds out what life is like for someone caught up in the crisis.
Almost 2,300 people have now died in West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has labelled the outbreak “the largest and most severe and most complex we have ever seen”.
There have been more than 3,500 confirmed or probable cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and it’s estimated that more than 20,000 people could be infected before the outbreak is brought under control.
And Liberia’s defence minister this week said his country is facing a “serious threat” to its national existence.
Alistair Short is country director in Liberia for Concern Worldwide and is currently working on the aid charity’s response to the crisis.
His role includes educating locals on the risk factors for infection and teaching people how to protect themselves through radio messaging, distributing awareness posters and factsheets suitable for all levels of literacy, establishing handwashing stations where people can properly wash and disinfect their hands, supporting health structures including health staff trainings on ebola symptoms and prevention, and the provision of personal protective equipment to health facilities.
Although originally from the Lake District, Alistair has lived in Lancaster since 2005.
His wife, who is from Liberia, currently studies nursing at the University of Cumbria’s Lancaster campus and his two children attend Cathedral Primary School.
Alistair has worked for Concern Worldwide for the last 10 years, previously in Sierra Leone and North Korea and now in Liberia.
For a brief period during 2007 he returned to Lancaster and was the Christmas Night Shelter coordinator for Lancaster District Homeless Shelter.
When he first started work in Liberia in 2001, Alistair worked on a livestock development project.
But for the past three years he has been Concern Worldwide’s country director, implementing community based development programmes.
He said: “These focus on building the resilience and livelihood security of the extreme poor.
“We do this through integrating community health (including water supply and sanitation), primary education (focused on early grade literacy and numeracy), livelihood interventions (around livestock, farming, village saving and loan schemes and road access to markets) and address inequalities between men and women (addressing the mind set of male dominance over women).
“We also do a lot of advocacy work around teacher training, safer schools, improved water and sanitation and on promoting social protection (social security for the poor).
However, in recent months Alistair has found himself focusing his efforts on helping those caught up in the Ebola outbreak.
He said: “Concern is also a humanitarian organisation and we have a mandate to intervene in large scale emergencies. Concern is already responding to crisis in Syria, Turkey, South Sudan, Philippines and Central African Republic.
“Since April Concern has been responding to the Ebola outbreak.
“We do this through coordinating with the local County Health teams, doing public awareness raising about Ebola, providing essential equipment: disinfectants, chlorine, latex gloves and personal protective equipment, funding training of clinic staff, community health volunteers etc to conduct disease surveillance, inter-personal and house-to-house communication on Ebola and contact tracing people who might have been affected, and supporting county burial teams with vehicles, repairs, fuel for the collection of bodies.
“Our health system here is struggling under the strain: the spread of Ebola affecting nurses and doctors caused fear and panic and there’s a general shortage of essential equipment and infection control.”
Although largely protected from the disease himself, it’s still a potentially dangerous time for Alistair and his co-workers to be based in Liberia.
He said: “For most of us not directly caring for people with Ebola (unlike family carers or some healthcare staff), we are still very much at low risk by following the key protocols of handwashing, no touching, good personal hygiene and avoiding the few people who are acutely sick from Ebola.
“In August there was a big panic and fear as the disease came to [Liberian capital] Monrovia and some airlines suspended flights, hindering access in and out of Monrovia.
“Many internationals from mining companies, businesses and non-governmental organisation workers were evacuated.
“But now the situation is becoming ‘normal’ for people. Remember, Liberians have been used to 14 years of civil war!”
However, Alistair fears the situation will continue for the next few months.
He said: “The outbreak is not being contained and progressively getting worse.
“We now have more than 1,500 cases and 856 deaths including 71 deaths of health workers.
“There are a shortage of Ebola treatment units and insufficient ambulances and burial teams to respond.
“This is all leading to evermore transmission of the disease. We continue to advocate for greater international support and funding and skilled public health staff to contain the outbreak.
“For now it seems likely that this emergency situation will run for a number of months, even up to Christmas.”