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APG team's Liberia mission shifts as Ebola cases decrease

"We train for this all year round. With that comes safety," Col. Patrick M. Garman, commander of the 1st Area Medical Laboratory, said of the Ebola mission.
"We train for this all year round. With that comes safety," Col. Patrick M. Garman, commander of the 1st Area Medical Laboratory, said of the Ebola mission. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

When the Army scientists from Aberdeen Proving Ground arrived in Liberia six weeks ago, their commander said, it was not uncommon for rural Ebola patients to wait several days for blood test results.

Laboratories in the capital of Monrovia were overwhelmed, Col. Patrick Garman said. Rural areas didn't have labs. And the roads between the two are often treacherous, making transport of samples difficult.

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The 22 members of the Army's 1st Area Medical Laboratory team got to work doing what they are trained to do: establishing safe laboratory spaces in low-resource settings.

They've completed three such labs, converted from old buildings, and are set to open a fourth in the southwestern coastal town of Greenville next week, Garman said Monday in a telephone interview from Liberia.

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Thanks in part to those efforts, the wait time for blood results in certain parts of the country has been cut from days to hours, Garman.

"It changes everything," he said.

Liberia is one of the nations hit hardest by the worst Ebola outbreak on record. Some 3,222 in the country had died as of Dec. 7, according to the World Health Organization.

That's nearly half of the 6,583 who have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

In Sierra Leone, officials announced plans last week to ban parties over the Christmas and New Year's holidays and to launch a new "surge" against the disease, including door-to-door visits to identify the sick and take them to clinics.

But in Liberia, infections have slowed in recent weeks, raising hopes that the worst of the outbreak is over. The country's Supreme Court ruled over the weekend that the government should go ahead with Senate elections, rejecting a petition to suspend the vote until the outbreak is brought fully under control.

As the number of new Ebola cases has slowed, Garman said, his team's focus has shifted from ramping up testing capacity to bringing wait times for test results down.

Members are also working to ensure that "the cases that do occur can get to a laboratory in a shorter amount of time," he said. That requires adequate lab space.

Quicker testing can save lives. Under present conditions, patients who are waiting for results are placed in isolation with other patients with similar symptoms — even though one might have Ebola and the other, malaria.

The longer it takes to get a patient's results, the longer it takes epidemiologists and health workers responding to get word of a positive test to the patient's contacts.

Garman said team members are leaning on each other for support.

"We're a unit that lives and works and eats and does things together in Aberdeen, so we have long since gelled as a unit, and we just continue that over here," he said.

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It also helps that the team is gaining real experience while doing work that is clearly helping, he said.

"As the epidemic keeps going down I think it gives them gratification that they're doing the right thing and they're making a difference," Garman said. "It gives them confidence that what they trained for actually helps them in their mission setting."

The team was deployed for up to a year. Garman said Monday he is not sure whether orders will change if conditions continue to improve in Liberia. The team could be sent to Sierra Leone or Guinea, or could be brought home.

"It depends on the epidemic, whether we can come home sooner or later," he said.

For now, he said, there is still plenty to do in Liberia.

"They're doing a great job," he said. "I think they're going to be able to come home at the end of this tour with their heads held high."

Reuters contributed to this article.

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