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In Liberia, Ebola Shifts From Cities To Villages


The death toll in the largest Ebola outbreak in history continues to rise in West Africa. Just this past week, the World Health Organization reported 600 new cases in the three hardest hit countries - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Liberia had been the epicenter of the outbreak. But now the country with the largest number of victims is neighboring Sierra Leone. NPR reporters have been covering the story in both countries. NPR's Kelly McEvers is about to finish nearly two weeks in Liberia. She joins us on the line. Hi, Kelly.


MARTIN: So this is your first time in Liberia. What are your general impressions of what's going on?

MCEVERS: Well, because I wasn't here during the worst time, and that was August and September, it's hard to say how things have changed. But what I do know are the stories that people have been telling us about what it was like during that time. And it sounds really, really grim. You know, the Ebola treatment units were full. There weren't enough beds. People were being turned away, literally, you know, dying in the streets. You had slums, like West Point, which I'm looking over right now. I'm sort of up on a hill looking down over that West Point slum in Monrovia, the capital, where things were very dire.

Things are different now. There's an election going on. People are kind of letting their guard down. You get a sense that because the numbers are going down, people are relaxing. But what you are hearing from health officials is that people need to remain vigilant. What's happening now is you see Ebola cases popping up in the rural areas again. So that means that the sickness has spread from the city here and people are going back out into their villages and getting sick there.

MARTIN: So it's still obviously a problem to say the least. But do health officials seem like they have a grip on the situation?

MCEVERS: I mean, what they're doing now is they're sending these teams out into these very remote areas. We actually went with one of these teams. The report was on Morning Edition last week. It was a long, long trek into a place with, you know, no roads, no cell phone service just to locate people who have Ebola, figure out who they've been in contact with, figure out how to treat them. And so they are kind of getting a handle on this, basically sending people out like this. I mean, but we heard crazy stories. You know, one team went into a really remote village and all they found when they got there were 22 fresh graves. I mean, that's still happening. So I think everyone's saying, look, you know, we're working on it, but we've got more to do.

MARTIN: So when you are out in these really remote places where Ebola is still at a crisis level, what kind of precautions have you been taking?

MCEVERS: You know, I mean a lot of people say it's actually pretty hard to get Ebola. You know, you have to be in contact with a really - a person who is sick - right? - who has active symptoms. And you have to come in contact with a person's body fluids, basically. So when we're out in these places, you know, kind of looking for people with Ebola, we're not in contact with people with Ebola. Or if we're in an Ebola treatment unit, we're kind of separate from the people who have Ebola. But still, you know, you do what a lot of Liberians are doing now. You know, practice no touching, no handshakes. I mean, a lot of people I've wanted to give a handshake or a hug on this trip, and I can't do it. So that's basically what we're doing.

MARTIN: So you've been there now a couple of weeks. You've seen health officials try to contain the virus. But what are people there telling you about the larger question - whether or not the spread of this deadly virus can just end?

MCEVERS: You know, we talked to some epidemiologists, and they say this will end. You know, it's going to ping-pong as it has been sort of from the city to the rural areas. But eventually, it can contain it where it's happening, this particular outbreak will come to an end - at least in Liberia. I mean, it's worse in Sierra Leone next door. It's sort of where Liberia was a couple of months ago. But the worry is that, you know, that the infrastructure needs to be here in place for the next time there's another outbreak.

MARTIN: NPR's Kelly McEvers reporting from the Monrovia, Liberia. Thanks so much, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.