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Ebola Closes The Doors Of One Of Liberia's Oldest Hospitals


A Spanish priest who was infected with Ebola in Liberia died today. He spent his final days at a hospital in Madrid, where he'd been evacuated for treatment. Father Miguel Pajares had been working at St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. That hospital is now shut down because so many staff members fell ill with Ebola. NPR's Jason Beaubien visited the facility today.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hospitals in Africa are almost always teeming with people. In addition to patients waiting for care, friends and relatives are usually gathered on hospital grounds. But here in Monrovia, Ebola has silenced the city's main hospitals. St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital is completely shut. Samuel Bowman is 72 and the medical director of the facility. He says, St. Joseph's wasn't even supposed to be treating Ebola patients, but some ended up on his wards.

SAMUEL BOWMAN: In the process, our hospital director became infected by one of the patients, and he has subsequently died. And those who were in direct contact with him - they got infected.

BEAUBIEN: Liberia is ranked by the U.N. as the fifth poorest country on earth. And it's the poorest and smallest of the four countries that have so far been hit by the Ebola outbreak. Liberia now has registered almost 600 cases and has the fastest growing rate of infection. Arguably, Liberia is the least prepared to deal with the deadly virus.

Bowman says, his 140 bed hospital had only a handful of the full body protective suits which have become the standard for treating Ebola patients. They had so few, they had to use them, in his words, sparingly. The outbreak tore through the staff at St. Joseph's. In addition to the hospital director and the Spanish priest, Bowman counts off on his fingers the others who got infected.

BOWMAN: A brother, two sisters, two of our staff nurses, a social worker and a laboratory technician.

BEAUBIEN: St. Joseph's touts itself as the oldest continuously operating hospital in the country. It stayed open throughout the bloody, brutal regimes and rebel wars of the 1990s. But unable to contain Ebola, St. Joseph shut its gates two weeks ago. This was right after the controversial case of Patrick Sawyer. Sawyer brought his sister to St. Joseph's for treatment, and after she died of Ebola, he flew to Nigeria, sparking the outbreak there. The original closure of St. Joseph's was supposed be for a month. Bowman says, the idea was for the facility to regroup and the wards to be disinfected.

Has it yet been disinfected?

BOWMAN: Not yet.

BEAUBIEN: Who's going to disinfect it?

BOWMAN: The Min. of Health is supposed to.

BEAUBIEN: But you're still waiting for that.

BOWMAN: We are. We are still waiting.

BEAUBIEN: Bowman says, this is an incredibly difficult time for everyone associated with St. Joseph's. When we met outside his living quarters at the back of the hospital compound, Bowman had just heard on the radio that Father Miguel, the Spanish priest, had passed away. He's had to turn away the pregnant women, kids with broken arms, cases of diarrhea and malaria that used to get treated here. And then there are his colleagues, who are still being treated at the Ebola isolation unit of another Monrovia hospital.

BOWMAN: It's quite hard. It's hard for even those of us who are here doing nothing because many of us are not used to sitting idle, you know. It's distressing to see our workers being infected by the virus and to see that a number of them have died.

BEAUBIEN: Even this morning, he was making arrangements for another funeral of another staff member who died yesterday. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Monrovia, Liberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.