Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and it's The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. Want to get an idea of how serious the Ebola crisis is in West Africa? The US today called for a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council this week to discuss how to contain the Ebola outbreak. More than 2,400 people have died from the disease so far. The hardest hit country in West Africa is Liberia. Last week on The World, we heard how patients there are being turned away by overwhelmed doctors in hospitals and clinics. Today, I spoke with Dr. Joia Mukherjee with the group Partners in Health. They're based here in Boston and they've just announced an ambitious multi-year project to combat the Ebola outbreak. In fact, I spoke with Mukherjee just hours before she and her team board a plane bound for West Africa.
Dr. Joia Mukherjee: We are heading to Liberia with our friends from Last Mile Health, which is a grassroots organization that we helped to found and start. It's an organization we believe in, they do grassroots work, paying front line health workers to be in villages, to connect people to healthcare at the primary healthcare level. And so when our friends in Last Mile started to see cases and suspect cases of Ebola, they asked for our help because they are a small organization and younger than Partners in Health and needed our support. Of course, we feel compelled to enter into this international crisis of the Ebola outbreak, and so we will be going on this delegation, first and foremost, to support the people of Liberia morally and say "We're here, we're in, we're willing to help," and to see, together with our friends from Last Mile Health, how Partners in Health can help to strengthen the work on the ground of Last Mile in terms of increasing the footprint of these community health workers, increasing the skill set and the knowledge at the primary healthcare level and then to decentralize treatment for Ebola once those cases are identified to the rural districts where Last Mile Health is working.
Werman: It sounds like a clear point by point strategy but we're hearing that the health infrastructure in Liberia is so overwhelmed that people who are presenting initial signs of Ebola, like vomiting and serious fatigue, are being turned away from clinics because the clinics are so full and essentially told "Come back when you're really sick." Are you worried that any strategy you have in place may just have to be put on pause because the need is so big for just smart medical hands-on-deck like yourselves?
Mukherjee: No, I'm not worried that any strategy would have to be put on hold. I think we're fortunate, again, that we're working with an organization that's already there. They're already providing care, they're providing ongoing primary health care to a population that is largely rural and fortunately does not yet have the major burden of disease, though there have been cases confirmed and suspected in those more rural regions. So our hope is that we can, by joining forces, provide Ebola case finding, contact tracing, prevention at the community level, in conjunction with treatment in a decentralized way. That can maybe help to get ahead a little bit in the rural areas that are not yet overwhelmed with this disease. So, I'm not worried that the strategy will be put on pause. I'm more worried that the international community will do too little to respond. We need much more money for this. This is an international crisis. If we think about how much money was allocated to control the spread of SARS, which at the height of SARS I believe only 600 people died, which is very terrible. But here we're already in the thousands.
Werman: Right, more than 1,200 dead from the disease in Liberia alone and that's half of all the cases.
Mukherjee: Right, so whatever long term strategy we employ, we have to rebuild and build - sometimes it's not a question of rebuild - build health infrastructure that can really deal with this.
Werman: This crisis has been roiling since March. Why do you think the response has been so slow?
Mukherjee: Unfortunately Marco, I think it's racism. I think it's racism.
Werman: Lay that out for us. What's your argument?
Mukherjee: Well, I think it's easy for the world, the powerful world who are largely non-African, non-people of color, to ignore the suffering of poor black people. I think also classism. These are not countries that contribute massively to the global economy, and so it's easy to just sort of other-ize this problem. "It's not going to impact us." I think, first of all, it may very well impact us if we don't get it under control. But perhaps more importantly, from a humanity perspective - not humanitarian - but a humanity perspective, is we're one humanity and the suffering of people in Liberia or Sierra Leone is no different than suffering where I live in Brookline in terms of the impact on a mother, on a father, on brothers and sisters. So, we really feel that the notion of solidarity here is so critical, that people feel that this is truly painful to others and really try to assume some of that responsibility
Werman: Dr. Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer at Partners in Health here in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. She'll be taking off for Liberia tonight with a team of doctors and other health professionals. Thanks very much. Stay safe.
Mukherjee: Thank you, Marco.