While the terrifying spread of Ebola has captured the world’s attention, it also has produced a lesser-known crisis: the near-collapse of the already fragile health-care system here, a development that may be as dangerous — for now — as the virus for the average Liberian.
Western experts said that people here are dying of preventable or treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and the effects of high blood pressure and diabetes, such as strokes. Where services do exist, Ebola has complicated the effort to provide them by stoking fear among health-care workers, who sometimes turn away sick people or women in labor if they can’t determine whether the patient is infected. And some people, health-care workers said, will not seek care, fearful that they will become infected with Ebola at a clinic or hospital.
“If you stub your toe now in Monrovia, you’ll have a hard time getting care, let alone having a heart attack or malaria,” said Sheldon Yett, the Liberia representative for UNICEF. “It’s a tremendous threat to children and a tremendous threat to families.”
Good data on the deterioration of non-Ebola health services is difficult to find. But representatives of several Western non-profit groups confirmed a recent small measles outbreak in Lofa County — a town about 270 miles from Monrovia, where the epidemic first hit Liberia — that probably came about because vaccinations are no longer being provided. Measles is highly contagious and can be fatal.
Liberia had made some strides in recent years in areas such as reducing its infant mortality rate. Now, according to the World Health Organization, which cited Liberian government statistics, the Ebola outbreak has caused significant declines in most public health measures.