Stephen Smoot

As media coverage switches gears to follow the plight of the American doctor rushed home for treatment, Liberia continues to struggle with its worst Ebola outbreak ever. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta called it “unprecedented,” enacting a Level Three warning, admonishing Americans to avoid non-essential travel there.

In response, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf adopted strong measures to contain the spread and reassure the people, but fear spreads faster than the virus itself. Can Liberians regain control of the outbreak. Also important, can Liberia maintain the fragile democracy built in the last several years?

Ebola virus first appeared in 1976 in Sudan and the country then known as Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the CDC, three separate strains of the virus exist. Two can infect humans. Humans and other primates are susceptible to infection by the virus, which usually leads to viral hemorrhagic fever. Mortality rates are very high, but transmission can only come from direct contact with secretions from an infected person.

Since February over 800 Africans, including over 200 Liberians, have died from the disease, which spread to neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone. What has made this outbreak so unnerving is the infection rate among health care workers. Liberia’s Daily Observer reports that the St. Joseph Catholic Hospital in Congo Town lost its chief administrator, Dr. Patrick Nshamdze. Liberian Ebola expert Dr. Samuel Brisbane died last month.

American doctor Kent Brantley contracted the virus and has been flown back to the United States for treatment.

The outbreak has put severe strains on a West African nation still working to build democracy and development after many years of misrule.

Current president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won election in 2005, two years after an American intervention requested by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS.) Liberia suffered for over 20 years under a series of dictators starting with Samuel Doe and ending with Charles Taylor. Doe and Taylor followed the “Big Man” model of African national leaders, combining corruption and violence with inept governance.

Stephen Smoot

Dr. Stephen A. Smoot is a columnist, historian, political adviser, and media expert. He lives with his family in West Virginia.