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Without Hope Of Help, Neighbors Turn To Makeshift Ebola Quarantine


The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has crippled the healthcare system in Liberia. Hospitals have shut and people have few other places to turn for medical care. The Ministry of Health is so overwhelmed there are sometimes long waits for ambulances to pick up suspected Ebola patients. In some communities, residents have set up their own quarantines of families believed to be infected with the virus. NPR's Jason Beaubien found one instance of that in the capital Monrovia.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, a young woman died in an area called Perry Town on the edge of Monrovia. And soon after that, the other six members of her family started to get sick. One of their neighbors, Amadu Sarnor, says the community told everyone in the family to stay inside their house. And Sarnor says for more than a week, he and others called the health ministry to try to get help for the family.

AMADU SARNOR: We try. We called. We call the hotline - four, four, five, five, one, triple three.

BEAUBIEN: But he says the family was deteriorating rapidly. Some of them could no longer walk. Sarnor says that over the two weeks that the family was under the community's quarantine, neighbors brought them food, juices and water. He says they placed the supplies in the driveway and then back out of the yard. The family used a cell phone to tell them what they needed.

SARNOR: We stood here right under the tree and asked everybody - nobody should go in our house. Remain there. Anything you want, you call.

BEAUBIEN: Despite repeated calls for medical help, no one came. Finally on Wednesday, an ambulance arrived. But by that time, the 15-year-old son in the family was already dead. The other five members of the family were evacuated to the Ebola isolation ward in Monrovia. The body of the teenager was left inside the house. An investigation team from the Liberian Ministry of Health finally makes it to the site. Two men completely covered in white Tyvek suits, facemasks and goggles go in to take a blood sample from the corpse.

HARRY M. PAASEWE: Stay away from that place. Stay away for now.

BEAUBIEN: One of their coworkers, Harry M. Paasewe, warns a crowd of onlookers not to go into the house until it's disinfected by a spray team.

PAASEWE: We tell them to stay away from that house until they spray it again - spray the house and until the team will come and to certify that place is good.

BEAUBIEN: The team takes a blood sample from the dead teenager, but to the anger of the neighbors, leaves the body where it lay. Paasewe tells them another vehicle will come to retrieve the corpse. Sarnor, who'd been involved in bringing food to the sick family, says it's outrageous that the team was leaving the potentially contagious body in his neighborhood for another day.

SARNOR: Because the door is open, we don't know what go in or is going to come out and spread all over our community. That's our fear.

BEAUBIEN: He says over the two weeks that the neighbors conducted their quarantine of the family, everyone was very careful except for one woman. One of the six people inside the house was a baby. Sarnor says a woman arrived who said she was a relative. She insisted on bathing the baby on the front stoop and changing the infants soiled clothes. When the Ministry of Health team finally showed up, they asked them to find her and arrest her and get her some help.

SARNOR: So when team came, we sent to go and arrest her to go take a test and start taking early treatment so it can't bother her and her family.

BEAUBIEN: But now they can't find the woman and no one knows where she went. Even before the Ministry of Health forensic team leaves the house, two young men arrive saying there's another body that's been sitting in another house down the road for three days. The health workers shrug. The collection of bodies is done by another crew. They tell the boys to call the Ebola Hotline and promised that someone will come to pick up the corpse eventually. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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