Straight talk on Ebola: County health experts, Liberian refugees discuss how to protect families overseas

September 22, 2014

Members of the Oregon Association for Liberia sell t-shirts to raise money for Medical Teams International.

Hawa Doe immigrated to Portland from Liberia after that country’s back-to-back civil wars. Now she’s lost six family members to the Ebola virus, and three more are laying in hospital beds with a 50 percent chance of dying.

Matengbe and Sekou Dolley have lost seven relatives to the Ebola virus in less than a month. From their home in Portland, they say it feels like there’s little they can do to help extended family in Liberia.

Multnomah County’s West African immigrant community estimates they have lost more than 50 relatives to an outbreak of Ebola that has sickened more than 5,000 people and killed nearly half that many, according to a count maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Konah Hall, also from Liberia, says families have been told how to prevent the spread of infection, but they don’t have a choice except to provide care when the hospital beds fill and sick relatives are sent home.

“People are not ignorant,” says Hall. “But I have two kids. If they get sick I wouldn’t ignore them.”

A Friday event hosted by the Oregon Association for Liberia and the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights was part celebratory fundraiser for Tigard-based Medical Teams International and part sobering crash-course in triage home care.

An attendee of Friday's community meeting takes a quick photo of Multnomah County deputy health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines.

Nathaniel Karkula of the Oregon Association for Liberia said he hoped relatives in West Africa would be more likely to follow their advice than that of foreign aid workers.

So they reached out to the Multnomah County Health Department.

Dr. Amy Sullivan, manager of Communicable Disease Services, and deputy health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines suggested ways that families could protect themselves in spite of quarantines, curfews and shortages of food and fresh water.

“I’ve been in public health for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Sullivan told the community Friday.

This year’s Ebola outbreak has sickened more than twice as many people as all 28 previous epidemics combined, according to an analysis of data maintained by the World Health Organization.

The virus cannot be transmitted by air, food or water, Sullivan said. But people caring for sick relatives must avoid contact with blood, vomit and other body fluids.

“I know that’s very difficult. It puts everyone in a hard position,” she said. “But they simply cannot touch sick people.”

Here are a few of the questions Sullivan and Vines addressed:

Q: Can Ebola be transmitted by contaminated cloth or bed sheets?

A: Yes, as long as the body fluid is still fresh. Cloth can be safely handled after about 24 hours.

Q: How long should a family wait after a relative is cured before they come into contact again?

A: A person who is released from quarantine is safe; safe to hug, sleep beside and even kiss. One exception: semen continues to be infectious for about seven weeks.

Q: After someone is cured, can he still infect others?

A: People can’t transmit the virus before they show symptoms or after they are released (with the caveat of no sex for seven weeks). In fact, a person who has survived Ebola is immune from the virus for 10 years or longer. “Those who have had Ebola are the very safest people to be around,” Sullivan said. “And people do survive. And we need to bring them back into the community.”

World Health Organization's regional confirmed and probable Ebola cases map - Sept.16 2014