GOLETA, Calif. — An Ebola crisis blamed for more than 2,200 deaths warps the way West Africans see hospitals and doctors, said a health care leader from Sierra Leone.
The rising level of infection in health care workers — more than 135 have died — instills fear of the places designed to offer lifesaving help.
"The very person who should treat you," said Abdul Jalloh, "is also the infector."
Jalloh, director of the Medical Research Centre in Sierra Leone, was in California on Thursday because of a shipment of supplies designed to whittle the fear. Direct Relief, the humanitarian organization in Goleta, is sending 100 tons of surgical gloves, goggles and other medical supplies.
The shipment, which will fill a chartered 747, is the largest in Direct Relief's 66-year history. The pallets that now fill two warehouses decorated with international flags range from decontamination suits to antibiotics and other basic medical necessities.
Some of the supplies will go to ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) hospital in Liberia, where leaders include a physician from Ventura, Dr. John Fankhauser. Many of the provisions will go to Sierra Leone, distributed to hospitals and other facilities by the government and Jalloh's organization.
The ultimate goal is ambitious.
"To stop the spread of the disease and re-instill confidence in the health care worker," said Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief.
Jalloh's center started a midwifery school to combat the mortality rate of mothers and babies. It supports community health centers that provide primary care in areas where it is desperately needed.
The Ebola crisis has overshadowed everything.
"We have been swept off our feet," he said of his country, telling Direct Relief staff members that 1,305 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Sierra Leone with more than 430 deaths.
People cling to traditions which involve ritual burials and touching of the body. But when Ebola kills, the fear of it spreading remains. Families are told they can't perform their rituals.
They resist, in at least one case, exhuming a body and bringing a domino line of deaths.
"Besides fighting the disease itself, you fight the thinking of the people," Jalloh said.
The toll of the crisis isn't limited to the number of infections and deaths.
"It goes to the economy," he said, noting the national government may eventually run out of money to pay its employees. "It goes to the very social fabric that connects us."
The Sierra Leone government will impose a three-day lockdown across the country beginning Thursday, Jalloh said. People will be ordered to stay in their homes, giving officials a chance to visit homes, spread education and see if there are infected people still in households.
The assessment will probably bring the discovery of more cases and deaths.
"I think we've not reached our peak," Jalloh said.
The biggest need is protective gear. Jalloh's group has no money for supplies, instead relying on its six year partnership with Direct Relief.
Funded solely by donations, the 66-year-old humanitarian organization has already sent 10 shipments of supplies to West Africa. But as the crisis grows, the process becomes more complicated.
"In an emergency, you need the transportation pipeline to expand and it has contracted," said Tighe.
Airlines have closed down many flights, pushing Direct Relief to charter a 747 at a cost of about $400,000. More than 300 pallets will be loaded into trucks and driven to New York before being flown to West Africa.
Resources used in West Africa in the past to purchase other medical supplies have been diverted to fund the never-ending needs caused by Ebola. That means people are in need of basic medications, included in the 100-ton delivery.
Direct Relief coordinates its delivery with groups like the Medical Research Centre. Organization leaders also work with government agencies in West Africa to make sure the supplies aren't duplicating the efforts of other groups.
The magnitude of the crisis was underscored by Thursday's news that another doctor from Sierra Leone — the fourth — tested positive and will be evacuated. The three other Sierra Leoneans died.
Jalloh said surviving the crisis will depend on partners like his group, Direct Relief, and many others working together.
"Because of you, I am," he said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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