When Ebola hit Liberia, refugees took frontline health role

Ivorian refugee community health workers courageously battled Ebola and other threats in exile.


Jocelyn Konet and his team of community health workers meet before heading out to work at Little Wlebo camp, Liberia.  © UNHCR/Diana Diaz

LITTLE WLEBO CAMP, Liberia, June 2 (UNHCR) – When a deadly Ebola outbreak spread across Liberia killing thousands and sickening many more, Ivorian refugee health worker Jocelyn Konet did not hesitate: Donning gloves, rubber boots and other protective clothing, he set out to save lives.

“At the beginning of the outbreak, people closed their doors in our faces. They said the hospital was the source of Ebola,” Konet says, recalling his work going door-to-door with practical tips to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease.

Liberia registered its first case of Ebola in March 2014. In the months that followed, the number of suspected cases topped 7,400, with over 4,600 deaths, making Liberia the country hardest hit by the West African outbreak.

Konet and his team of 52 Ivorian health workers took part in a vital outreach drive by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and health partner Africa Humanitarian Action, in the three refugee camps hosted by the Liberian government.

“People closed their doors in our faces. They said the hospital was the source of Ebola.”

In home visits, the teams explained to refugees how the disease is spread by human-to-human contact. They also dispelled rumours that the virus was being mixed in the water or passed on by the health clinics themselves.

“Our work was really tough. Sometimes in cases of emergency you might forget about the preventive methods because you want to save a life. So I found myself touching people and realizing that this person could have Ebola. It was really scary,” he adds.

Poliyou Douai, another Ivorian refugee health worker at the camp, shared Konet’s fears, but suited up to help regardless. “We never had such thing in Côte d’Ivoire. It was not easy. We were all very scared.”

The West African Ebola outbreak was the largest and most complex since the virus was first discovered in 1976. In Liberia, the counties of Montserrado, Margibi and Lofa were hit the hardest, registering 1,801, 397 and 332 confirmed cases respectively.


Jocelyn Konet, centre, and the community health team conduct a house-to-house visits at Little Wlebo camp, Liberia.  © UNHCR/Diana Diaz


Some 240,000 Ivorians fled their country following 2011 post-electoral violence, of whom 22,000 remain in exile in Liberia. The counties hosting the refugee camps in Nimba, Maryland and Grand Gedeh registered 123 confirmed cases, yet no camp-based refugee was infected thanks to the efforts of the team.

“The community health workers played a fundamental role not only in sharing information related to prevention, but also in engaging refugees in taking part. It was thanks to them that the camps stayed free of Ebola with the support from the health facility and staff,” says Zinia Sultana, a medical doctor and UNHCR’s associate public health officer in Liberia.

The public health emergency related to Ebola in West Africa was lifted in March this year. However, the training and the experience that Konet, Douai and the team gained on the frontlines of the outbreak continues to be put to good use.

“The health workers played a fundamental role ... It was thanks to them that the camps stayed free of Ebola."

With placards on family planning, Konet starts his day conducting house-to-house visits explaining to refugees living in Little Wlebo camp the range of family planning methods available. He and the team also share information on malaria prevention, and encourage pregnant women to attend pre-natal clinics.  

“We are the link between the community and the hospital. We do communications work reaching out to the refugees in different formats – through dramas, posters, face-to-face meetings - to disseminate messages important for their health,” he explains.

Eager to learn and keep their community safe, the refugee team carry their responsibility with pride. “We are also refugees and this is our duty and we deposit our trust in God," Konet says. "I am thankful and proud of our work.”