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Looking Past Quarantine to Community Health

Paul Farmer

In between trips to Liberia, Paul Farmer of Partners In Health visited Open Society’s offices to discuss his work on Ebola. Paul talked about the need to ensure sustainable health systems for people in nations where the virus has spread. If there had been strong health-care systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, Ebola would not be the epidemic it is, particularly in terms of the rampant death rate.

The current focus on quarantine presents a danger not only in the short run, but in the long run as well. Quarantine forces farmers to leave their fields, freezes air travel in African cities, and slows the flow of food and labor. These interruptions can touch off longer, more complex health crises in the countries where Ebola is already weakening systems.

Instead, the coalition that includes Partners In Health is training and equipping community-based health workers, with local partners such as Last Mile Health taking the lead. Community health workers are trusted neighbors who provide care while connected to a formal health system. This kind of community-based health response not only challenges the spread of Ebola and its fatality but also enables a new economic base and public health infrastructure.

As the spread of Ebola continues to unfold, new health and economic challenges will emerge. If we stay nimble and flexible, we can use this experience as an opportunity to develop a responsive health system rooted in communities. This would be a victory for vulnerable economies, sustainability, and long-term health outcomes.

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