Oakdale non-profit rallies to help with Ebola outbreak in Liberia

HELLO Executive Director Ebenezer Flomo and his wife Janelle Voxland photographed on a 2013 trip to Liberia. The couple hope to return to the country to visit with family and friends as soon as the Ebola crisis has been eradicated. (submitted photo)

Ebenezer Flomo, Janelle Voxland and HELLO Lofa County Director Richard Mulbah, left, pose with some school children in Lofa County Liberia. (submitted photo)

Donations needed as crisis continues to worsen

It's hard to ignore the headlines coming out of West Africa announcing the latest death toll from what has become the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.

Most Americans first heard about it in July, when a U.S. doctor and another aid worker contracted the virus and later recovered on American soil with the help of an experimental drug known as ZMapp. 
But by that time, the disease had already taken hundreds of lives. The World Health Organization believes the outbreak started in December, and has since killed at least 1,400 people in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Guinea. 
Ebenezer Flomo is one of an estimated 30,000 Liberian natives living in the Twin Cities. He runs a local organization: Help Encourage Liberia's Little Ones, or HELLO. He started the 501(c)(3) non-profit while living in his homeland in 2003. Flomo married Janelle Voxland of Oakdale in 2005 and brought the organization with him to Minnesota. 
In recent months Flomo and Voxland have steered the organization's efforts toward combating the Ebola virus in Liberia. 
HELLO relief efforts
To help stop the spread of Ebola, the Oakdale couple have been raising funds and collecting cleaning and medical supplies: hand sanitizer, bleach, surgical masks and gloves, protective goggles, aprons and TPE suits. 
Flomo says staff from Doctors Without Borders and North Memorial Hospital in Golden Valley will order the medical supplies. What they need most from the public, he said, is hand sanitizer, bleach and cash to pay for the medical supplies and steep shipping costs.
"The Global Health Ministry is sending boxes by air because of the emergency situation," Flomo says.
Flomo said HELLO, with the help of other local groups, also plan to send a 40-foot-long shipping container of the supplies later this month, or as soon as it's filled.
These items are expensive and in scarce supply in Liberia -- one of the poorest nations on earth. To add perspective, the average annual salary in the African nation is around $435. 
The disease is spread through contact with bodily fluids from the infected, and since protective gear, sanitizers and disinfectants are in short supply in homes and clinics it has spread quickly.
HELLO is also wanting to replace a two-kilowatt radio transmitter in rural Lofa County, where Flomo grew up and HELLO's relief efforts are centered. Flomo says many of the county's residents are illiterate and rely on the 92.5 LIFE radio station for information -- the only radio station in the area, which is now off-air. He says they are hoping someone can either donate a transmitter, or they are able to raise enough funds to buy a replacement.
Flomo and his family are members of Rock Point Church in Lake Elmo, which has become a collection point for hand sanitizers, bleach and medical items that will soon be transported over 5,000 miles to help with the Ebola crisis in Liberia. 
A PayPal account has also been set up on the HELLO website, www.helloliberia.org, for tax-deductible donations that will be crucial to paying for the $8,000 cost of transporting the shipping container across the Atlantic. 
Checks and donated items can be dropped off at Rock Point Church, 5825 Kelvin Ave. N. in Lake Elmo, daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A dire situation unfolds 
Flomo says hospitals in Liberia have shut down; doctors and nurses are dying from the virus, and clinics are refusing patients, because they do not have the basic equipment needed to protect themselves. 
There are several other factors exacerbating the already volatile situation.
Voxland says some of the fundamental problems are lack of education, resources and a mistrust of the government. 
Liberia is still reeling from nearly 15 years of civil war and many Liberians do not trust government officials and did not believe them when they first warned of the Ebola outbreak.
"Most people now understand that this is real, but it's their first outbreak and almost no one has any idea how to deal with it," Flomo says.
Cultural traditions also contribute to the spread of Ebola in much of West Africa. The disease can still be spread after an infected person has died and too many people are handling the dead bodies of loved ones.
"Cremation is not part of the culture, although the president has [mandated] that the bodies be cremated, because people are most contagious after they have died," Voxland says. "Muslims also have the tradition of washing a body after the person has died."
Liberians are frustrated with government officials' slow response time and overall handling of the crisis.
"People are protesting, saying: 'you say not to touch the bodies, but it takes too long for them to be picked up,'" Flomo says. "This whole thing is out of control."
In an effort to try to stop the deadly disease from spreading, government officials have set strict travel restrictions and have blocked off whole communities. Thousands are unable to get to stores to buy food; many can't afford food as costs have skyrocketed. 
Flomo has spoken with family members in Liberia in recent days who say food prices have nearly doubled the past few weeks.
While the situation continues to worsen, he has not given up hope and is optimistic that conditions will improve, but admits that West African countries facing this epidemic need immediate help from the U.S. and other more prosperous nations.
"If more people can understand that we are a global community and help each other out there is hope," he says. 
Joshua Nielsen can be reached at jnielsen@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822.

Ebola symptoms and transmission

The Ebola virus was first found in humans in the Central African countries of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, where two simultaneous outbreaks occurred. One of those outbreaks began in a village near the banks of the Ebola River, where it got its name.
The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and it spreads in human populations through contact with bodily fluids. Ebola symptoms typically include -- fever, headache, diarrhea, vomiting and muscle pain.
The Center for Disease Control has estimated that the current outbreak has infected over 2,600 people in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Of those, over 1,400 have perished.
The CDC reports that, so far, between 55 and 60 percent of those infected in the 2014 outbreak have died, which is significantly lower than in previous outbreaks.
This is the first known outbreak in West Africa, and possibly the worst Ebola outbreak in history. There are experimental drugs being tested, but there is no known cure. The CDC and World Health Organization do not believe the outbreak poses a major threat to the U.S.
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