Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says Ebola was like 'unknown enemy'
Exclusive: CBC's Adrienne Arsenault talks with Liberian president
Liberia's president is urging Canada and other countries to do more as the Ebola outbreak continues to ravage her West African nation, saying there's a particular need for more highly skilled health workers, testing centres and training for those who are trying to contain the disease.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke to CBC News senior correspondent Adrienne Arsenault about the battle to contain the deadly virus, which is believed to have claimed nearly 2,000 lives in Liberia alone.
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Sirleaf said Liberia had an inadequate health system before Ebola arrived — a system she says was ill-equipped to deal with the "unknown enemy that descended on us."
Doctors and nurses paid a particularly high toll in the early days, she said, as many didn't know how to respond or didn't have proper access to the protective equipment that's become so essential.
"Doctors died, nurses died, physician assistants died. They were the first to take the toll."
She said multiple factors contributed to making the outbreak so severe in Liberia, including a lack of health care facilities, the mobility of the population, cultural practices and Ebola's penetration into the capital city, Monrovia.
"We felt the brunt of it," she said, adding that with international support and Liberia's own improved knowledge, the Ebola problem can be solved.
The international aid flowing into Liberia is from multiple sources, including UN agencies and individual countries.
Sirleaf said she wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and many leaders, to ask for support.
"I don't think there has been any direct bilateral assistance. But we know that they get help through the other means," she said during the interview, noting that Canada supports the United Nations and has made contributions through institutions like the World Health Organization.
Canada has made several donations since the outbreak began, including a donation of between 800 and 1,000 doses of an experimental vaccine and $2.5 million in personal protective equipment to the WHO.
Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's top public health officer, said earlier this week that officials in Canada have been co-ordinating with the WHO to arrange the shipment of vaccines and other supplies.
Moving the vaccine is tricky because it's an experimental product that has to be stored and handled in specific ways, he said. As of Wednesday, the bulk of the donated vaccine was still in a lab in Winnipeg, but Taylor said "we're prepared to ship that as soon as possible."
Taylor said that the WHO has identified plastic face shields as something they "need immediately" in the field. Some airlines don't want to ship to the affected area, but the Canadian officials are doing "the best we can," Taylor said, to find a way to get 300,000 face shields to West Africa quickly. The rest of the promised protective equipment will be shipped by sea, Taylor said Wednesday.
In late September, Canada said it would give "as much as $30 million in additional humanitarian assistance" to help people affected by Ebola in the region.
Sirleaf told CBC News she asked Canada and other countries for direct support for Liberia's Ebola treatment units.
Liberia 'still open to Canadian support'
"We are still open to Canadian support, whichever way they think it is appropriate based upon their own expertise, their own resources."
Canada does have a mobile lab operating in nearby Sierra Leone. Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Wednesday that two scientists are currently abroad with a mobile lab that provides rapid diagnostic testing.
Liberia's health system was under strain before the outbreak began, and the effort to provide proper care to all suspected patients has been a massive challenge. Donations have been coming through, but more resources and support are needed, Sirleaf said.
"I have no choice. I have to wait," she said. "But we're thankful for that which they have done — Canada and all the other countries."
She said support from some countries has been "more robust" than others, but the "totality of it all gives us confidence that our own capacity has been largely enhanced and that we are in a better position now to be able to address this and to win this battle."
Sirleaf's comments came a day after a new WHO report, which cites ongoing under-reporting of cases and says the situation in Liberia and Monrovia in particular "continues to deteriorate."
'Very saddened' by Ebola case in U.S.
Sirleaf also expressed concern about the news that a man carried Ebola from Monrovia to Dallas.
"With the U.S. doing so much to help us fight Ebola, and again one of our compatriots didn't take due care, and so, he's gone there and … put some Americans in a state of fear, and put them at some risk, and so I feel very saddened by that and very angry with him, to tell you the truth."
Sirleaf also disclosed that the man, identified in U.S. reports as Thomas E. Duncan, worked in the private sector with the courier company DHL.
She said the man had passed temperature tests, and "some very stringent precautionary measures," at the Monrovia airport.
"But the fact that he knew [he was exposed to the virus] and he left the country is unpardonable, quite frankly," she added. "I just hope that nobody else gets infected."
She suggested she'll have to consult lawyers to decide what to do with the man when he returns home.
Duncan arrived in Dallas on Sept. 20 to visit family and fell ill a few days later. His sister, Mai Wureh, identified him as the infected man in an interview with The Associated Press.
A Dallas emergency room sent Duncan home last week, even though he told a nurse that he had been in West Africa. The decision by Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital to release him could have put others at risk of exposure to Ebola before he went back to the ER a couple of days later when his condition worsened.
The man has been kept in isolation at the hospital since Sunday. He was listed Thursday in serious but stable condition.
Health authorities in Texas have issued a confinement order for four people in connection with the case, and are monitoring dozens more for signs of fever or other symptoms. The people who may have had contact with Duncan were all advised to contact medical workers if they start to feel sick or exhibit any symptoms of Ebola.
Liberia is one of the three countries hit hardest in the epidemic, along with Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Liberian leader a Nobel laureate
Sirleaf, 75, has been president since 2006. She is the first female head of state elected in Africa.
Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen. All three were praised for their struggle for the safety and political role of women.
"In her efforts to bring justice to her people in Liberia, she has spent more than a year in jail at the hands of the military dictatorship of Gen. Samuel Doe and had her life threatened by former president Charles Taylor," the Nobel Prize website says.
She holds a degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
With files from The Associated Press