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Correctional officers collect supplies for Ebola stricken Liberia

Masa M. Salifu, left, a corrections officer at Baltimore Central Booking Intake Center, initiated a donation drive for supplies for Ebola patients and workers in West Africa. Regional executive director Wendell M. France (behind her), from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, supported the drive, in which BCPIC employees donated water, electrolytes, bleach tablets, sanitizers and other cleaning supplies.
Masa M. Salifu, left, a corrections officer at Baltimore Central Booking Intake Center, initiated a donation drive for supplies for Ebola patients and workers in West Africa. Regional executive director Wendell M. France (behind her), from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, supported the drive, in which BCPIC employees donated water, electrolytes, bleach tablets, sanitizers and other cleaning supplies. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

The first to die from Ebola in Masa Salifu's family was her cousin, who worked in a hospital in Liberia. Next came her aunt, uncle and more cousins.

All told, 20 of Salifu's family members have been killed in the deadly West African outbreak, and the Liberian native, who moved to Catonsville 19 years ago, wanted to do something.

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"I didn't know how to go about it," said Salifu through tears. "I thought I'd have a bake sale or something."

A colleague at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, where she is a correctional officer, suggested that she ask for help from Carolyn J. Scruggs, the warden at central booking, who contacted Wendell "Pete" France, the central region executive director for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

A few weeks later, donated Clorox wipes, water, soap, sanitizer, towels and other supplies filled a back room in the central booking offices, gifts from workers in correctional facilities across the state. All of it will be shipped out by the end of November through the Liberian Association of Maryland, some of it to Salifu's village of Bolahun.

The effort is one of many being made by churches and individuals, as well as governmental agencies and aid groups, around the state and nation to bring supplies and services to West Africa, where the death toll from Ebola is believed to approach 5,000 out of more than 10,000 cases.

A study completed before the outbreak began by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that African countries impacted by Ebola were ill-equipped with sterile gloves, eyewear and other items needed to shield health care workers from infections.

For example, in Liberia, one of hardest-hit countries, just 56 percent of hospitals had protective eyewear for medical staff, while 63 percent had gloves, according to the study published recently in the journal Tropical Medicine and International Health.

"Sadly, one of the only benefits of the Ebola crisis in West Africa may be to highlight the baseline lack of personal protective equipment such as eye protection, gloves and aprons for health care workers," said Dr. Adam L. Kushner, study leader and an associate in the public health school.

"These items are crucial to protect health care workers today, but were lacking long before the current crisis," he said in a statement. "We've seen this for many years with HIV."

Various Baltimore-based aid groups are trying to fill the gaps, including Catholic Relief Services. Lutheran World Relief has spent about $80,000 for protective equipment, training of health care workers and a public awareness campaign, said spokeswoman Emily Sollie. The group also has provided psychological support to victims' families.

But the Baltimore-based organization has only raised a little over $9,000 directly for Ebola relief, much less than it does for natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes, Sollie said.

"Our donors tend to respond more to natural disasters of a large scale that receive abundant media attention," she said.

Smaller local churches, including those with ties to Africa, also have offered supplies. Maryland has one of the largest concentrations of residents from Africa at about 120,000, census data shows.

MedStar Health system gave $50,000 to MedShare, a nonprofit group that recovers surplus medical supplies from around the country and redistributes them in developing countries.

Jhpiego, a Hopkins affiliate that focuses on maternal and infant health in poor countries, has added infection prevention and control to their health care worker training in stricken countries. The Hopkins public health school sent advisers to affected countries. And Hopkins' Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality sent protective equipment to health care workers in Liberia and is working with the World Health Organization to institute better safety policies and programs in African countries.

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Many individuals have given to causes offering supplies and services, including high-profile business people such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who pledged $100 million, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who said he contributed $25 million.

Though others say the individual donations don't match the outpouring during past disasters around the globe.

AmeriCares has secured more than $3 million in gifts and pledges for the Ebola crisis — mostly from corporations and foundations — but that's about half the amount it raised after last year's typhoon in the Philippines and less than a fifth of the amount raised for the Haiti earthquake in 2010, said Donna Porstner, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut-based aid group.

"Even though Americans have become more concerned about the Ebola virus in recent weeks, it has not resulted in support for organizations like ours working hard to stop Ebola from spreading," Porstner said. "There is a disconnect."

The American Red Cross has raised nearly $3.1 million for its work in West Africa, but about $2.8 million of that came from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in August, with only $300,000 coming from individuals.

Jenelle Eli, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said there isn't a modern comparison for a large-scale outbreak, but the Red Cross took in $486 million after the Haiti earthquake and $87 million when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last November.

Eli wouldn't speculate if donors had been distracted by their fear of getting Ebola or by news focusing on criticism of the outbreak's handling rather than victims in Africa.

Generally, people aren't moved to make donations to complete strangers — rather they support charities with which they have some connection, like a family member who is a victim of disaster or disease, said Deborah A. Small, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

TV images of people suffering can boost giving, Small said. But the best approach is telling a particular victim's dramatic story, which can take the place of a personal relationship to encourage giving, Small said.

In Salifu's case, Small said, other corrections workers donated because they have a common link.

"Africa is a long physical distance," Small said. "But if they work with someone at the jail, they can say they know someone with a real connection or they're in the same field."

I. Ezax Smith, president of the Liberian Association of Maryland, said he was appreciative for all who have given, particularly the correction system employees, who made the largest single donation his group has received. But, he said, he wanted to "re-echo the call" for giving.

"We have a disaster with the potential to become a worldwide epidemic," he said. "For some reason the response has not been all that we need."

Back at Central Booking, Salifu marveled at what was brought in, mostly by co-workers who had heard her story but not met her.

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When she traveled home in March, she, as many Liberians do, stuffed her luggage with clothes, shoes and school supplies, but that was for her friends and community. This outpouring was more than she could ever bring home herself.

The corrections system will keep collecting items because the need remains, said France, the regional director.

"Our hearts go out to Masa for her losses," he said. "People wanted to help. And this stuff will help somebody."

Salifu is pleased the items will go to her community, including her extended family. She hoped her mother, sister, son and daughter, who are all in Maryland, will get a look at the collection before it is loaded onto a truck, the first leg of its trip to Africa.

"I thought people would help, but I didn't think it would be this much," she said. "I'm overwhelmed."

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