TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
In West Africa, the death toll from the Ebola epidemic is approaching 1,500. There is growing concern that trade and traffic are helping spread the virus. The Democratic Republic of Congo is now the fifth African country hit by the outbreak. Today, it's health ministry announced two Ebola related deaths there. Other countries in the region fear they could be next as the disease spreads. That includes Ghana, where NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on preparations for the possible arrival of Ebola.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mommy.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Yes, mommy?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What are you doing under the bed sweetie?
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Hiding from the Ebola monster.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, you don't have to be afraid of Ebola dear.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: A rare Ebola awareness jingle plays on the radio here in Accra, Ghana's capital, and it's privately sponsored - a sign that the authorities are moving slowly. Ebola public education radio spots don't exactly dominate the airwaves. But the virus is the hot topic of conversation in Ghana. Ebola has eclipsed even the current cholera outbreak. So is this country prepared to tackle Ebola? A question for health minister Dr. Kwaku Agyemang-Mensah during a sit-down interview with NPR.
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DR. KWAKU AGYEMANG-MENSAH: Well, we are prepared, yes. I can say that Ghana is ready. We are emphasizing on prevention. So we are screening, and we are also tightening our entry points to make sure that nobody slips in with an important case of Ebola.
QUIST-ARCTON: So if Ebola arrives today, have doctors, nurses and other health workers been trained, and are Ebola isolation and quarantine units ready? Again, the health minister.
AGYEMANG-MENSAH: All the regional hospitals and district hospitals have isolation centers so if somebody comes in with a suspected case. We are constructing three treatment centers, one in Tema should be ready in two weeks time.
QUIST-ARCTON: But critics of the government's efforts beg to differ, saying Ebola isolation units and dedicated frontline staff still aren't prepared.
DR. ERNEST YORK: We are not ready. At the higher level, their thoughts were one of those outbreaks that will be contained. So let's hedge our preparedness (unintelligible) resources
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Ernest York is chairman of the Accra branch of the Ghana Medical Association. He says plans for fighting a possible Ebola outbreak are simply way behind.
YORK: Gradually, you can sense that, especially for the governmental level, there's little sense of urgency. Last week, the president released some money, (unintelligible) it's late. Just a drop in the ocean. So, yes, we are not ready. We don't have the protective gear to wear. And we're talking about infection control. Are you going to touch a patient with your bare hand, no.
QUIST-ARCTON: An awareness and training session for doctors and other health workers at Ghana's premier government teaching hospital. They're showing them how to wear the protective equipment Dr. York says they don't have enough of. The briefing was organized by the Ghana Medical Association. A doctor from the official Ebola readiness team talks them through the demonstration.
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UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: I'm in my boots. OK. I'm wearing my goggles. I'm wearing my face mask. I'm wearing my double gloves.
QUIST-ARCTON: Plus those look-alike spacesuits, which should guard against the transmission of the infection from Ebola patients. General practitioners like Radha Hackman have been boning up on Ebola and attended Thursday's session.
RADHA HACKMAN: I was feeling very unprepared. But I must say yes this is a fascinating session I have attended and it has added, you know, to my confidence. And where we've had a few weak areas, I think it's helped me to learn how to plug the loopholes.
DR. KWADO ANSAH KORAM: This is a bio-safety level three building.
QUIST-ARCTON: It's here at the University of Ghana's Noguchi Research Institute that blood samples are tested for infectious diseases, including Ebola. About 60 to date, and they've all been negative says the director, Dr. Kwadwo Ansah Koram. He warns that there's some hysteria, even among doctors, who are sending in samples he says that don't need Ebola testing. He cautions.
KORAM: We need a few cool heads at the moment.
QUIST-ARCTON: Is there a bit of panic about Ebola then?
KORAM: Oh, there is a lot of panic (laughter) including the (unintelligible) and everything. It's panicky because of the case fatality.
QUIST-ARCTON: Church sermons today have been urging Ghanaians to protect themselves. Wash your hands well, as the radio spot says and...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lets stop Ebola even before it starts.
QUIST-ARCTON: The threat of Ebola arriving in Ghana is already affecting the economy. Hotels report canceled conferences and room bookings as more regional and international airline suspended flights to and from the Ebola affected zone. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.