Firestone Did What Governments Have Not: Stopped Ebola In Its Tracks
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In the midst of the Ebola outbreak that's raging in West Africa, there's one community that managed to quickly stop transmission of the virus. It's a rubber plantation in Liberia with thousands of employees who live there. Firestone built its own Ebola treatment unit and rapidly set up a comprehensive Ebola response that's being hailed as highly successful. Now the only Ebola cases on Firestone's sprawling plantation are patients who've come in from nearby towns.
NPR's Jason Beaubien visited and filed this report.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Harbel, Liberia is a company town not far from the capital, Monrovia. It was even named in 1926 after the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Harvey and his wife, Idabelle. Firestone workers and their families now make up a community of 80,000 people across the plantation. Long rows of dappled rubber trees cover the landscape. The prevailing winds cause the adult trees to lean westward. Employees used to joke that the trees are bowing to Akron, back when Firestone was still based in Akron, Ohio.
The first case of Ebola arrived on the plantation on March 30, at a time when the outbreak seemed to be a problem only in the far North of Liberia near the border with Guinea.
ED GARCIA: We went into crisis mode, management mode.
BEAUBIEN: Ed Garcia, the managing director of Firestone Liberia, says his entire management structure was redirected towards Ebola. The sick woman was the wife of a Firestone employee. She'd just returned from caring for a dying Ebola patient in the North of the country. Garcia says at first his team tried to find a hospital in the capital to care for the woman...
GARCIA: But unfortunately, at the time there was no facility that could accommodate her in this part of the country. So we quickly realized that we had to handle the situation ourselves. We were pretty much on our own.
BEAUBIEN: The case was detected on a Sunday. Garcia and a medical team from the company hospital spent Monday setting up an Ebola ward. Tuesday, the woman was placed in isolation.
GARCIA: You know, none of us had any Ebola experience.
BEAUBIEN: They scoured the Internet for information about how to treat Ebola. They cleared out an out-building on the hospital grounds and set up an isolation ward. They grabbed a bunch of hazmat suits for dealing with chemical spills at the rubber factory and gave them to the hospital staff.
GARCIA: It turned out that these were really suitable for Ebola cases.
BEAUBIEN: They immediately quarantined the family of the woman. Like so many Ebola patients, she died soon after being admitted to the ward. But no one else at Firestone got infected - not her family and none of the workers who transported, treated or cared for her. The local Firestone managers obviously had the benefit of the backing and the resources of a major corporation, something the local communities around them did not. And Firestone didn't see another Ebola case for four months. Then, in August as the epidemic raced through the nearby capital, patients with Ebola started appearing at the one hospital and several clinics across the giant rubber plantation. The hospital isolation ward was expanded to 23 beds and a prefab annex was built in front of it.
Garcia says containing Ebola became the number one priority of the company. Schools closed by government decree were transformed into quarantine centers. Teachers were dispatched to do door-to-door Ebola outreach and education. Hundreds of people with possible exposure to the virus were placed under quarantine and in the middle of September, the company's Ebola treatment unit was nearly full.
As of this weekend however, only three patients remained on the ward - a trio of boys aged 4, 9 and 17.
BENEDICT WOLLOR: So we have these three so we are concerned because by this morning, the 4-year-old was just crying. We want to make sure of what's happening.
BEAUBIEN: Dr. Benedict Wollor, the coordinator of the Ebola treatment unit at Firestone is watching as a team gets dressed in full bodysuits, gloves and goggles to enter the ward. The team consists of a doctor, two nurses and a man with an agricultural sprayer full of disinfectant strapped to his back. Dr. Wollor says the team has a lot of work to do before they get overheated in their industrial space suits.
WOLLOR: What the nurses do, they go through there. They have to change Pampers, change bedding, even bathe them, you know? Make sure they are all clean. Then if someone is dehydrated make sure there's an IV line going, OK, before you come at night.
Imagine how we maintain an IV line on a kid. It's a huge task.
BEAUBIEN: These three boys all came from outside the plantation, meaning that even as the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded rages all around them, Firestone appears to have blocked the virus from spreading inside its territory.
Dr. Brendan Flannery, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's team here in Liberia praises the Firestone response as resourceful, innovative and effective. He says one of the key elements of Firestone's approach is that they closely monitor people who've potentially been exposed to the virus.
BRENDAN FLANNERY: The success of their strategy has been as soon as one of those people who is a contact of someone who has either died of Ebola or is sick with Ebola - as soon as someone becomes ill, they move them out of that family unit or that voluntary quarantine into a place that's safer to provide care for those people.
BEAUBIEN: By most accounts, this Ebola outbreak remains out of control, with health care workers across West Africa struggling to contain it. When asked what's needed to turn that around, Flannery says more Firestones - more places where local leaders have the money, resources and unwavering determination to stop Ebola in their communities.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Monrovia.
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