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Ebola crisis in West Africa is felt locally

There have been more than 4,500 Ebola deaths in West Africa, and more than half of them occurred in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization. With close to 7,000 Liberians living in Maryland, the Ebola virus deaths have touched families throughout the state, including Laurel.

Byme Taylor, who moved to Laurel five years ago, lost several relatives, including his 31-year-old brother, a Liberian minister, to the virus. The 50-year-old Taylor came to the United States in 2003. He said his brother, the Rev. Hezekiah Taylor, who was living with a younger sister, was set to get married in December and had planned to visit Taylor and his family here that same month.

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"The last time I saw him was seven years ago when I was home," Taylor said. "This is such a great loss to me and is taking a big toll on my family because he was the one who kept us all calm and was our spiritual leader."

Taylor said his younger brother was also like a son to him.

Hezekiah Taylor graduated from college in Ghana, started a ministry there and moved to Liberia to start a church in Monrovia about two years ago.

Taylor travels worldwide for extended periods as the financial director for the University Research Co., a Bethesda-based, nonprofit, international health and humanitarian agency.

He has six brothers and four sisters in Liberia. His family called him in July from Liberia, informing him that his brother was ill.

"They took him to the hospital for tests and he was said to be negative for Ebola. The doctors said he had malaria and gave him medicine for that, but two days later, after preaching a sermon at his church, he fell sick again and was taken back to the hospital," Taylor said. "The doctors said since the malaria meds did not work, they thought he could have Ebola and they sent him to an Ebola clinic. I think that was a wrong decision and that he got exposed to Ebola there."

Taylor said his brother died shortly after being taken to the Ebola clinic.

"He was buried in a body bag, but we know where his grave is. That was before they ruled that all bodies should be burned," he said shaking his head sadly.

In recent weeks, Taylor has lost several cousins, who lived in Monrovia, to the virus, and five members in one family alone.

Taylor and many other Liberians in the area say Ebola has drastically changed their families' lives in many ways back home. They no longer visit each other for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. Although all of his brothers and sisters are doing fine now, when his telephone rings, Taylor said he fears it will be news of someone else being exposed to the virus.

"I talk to family members three to four times a week and always ask if you checked on this person or that person. My brother, who's next to me, is a journalist in Liberia and he's keeping us updated," he said.

The often deadly Ebola virus has shut schools, churches and local markets throughout Liberia, which many people depended on to make a living. Taylor said a lot of Liberians in the U.S. are sending more money and supplies to help relatives survive back home.

"People are dying from hunger and other diseases and now it's the rainy season and water needs to be treated but that's not happening," he said. "People are drinking well water and that's not good, especially now."

Ezak Smith, president of the Maryland Liberian Association, said since Liberia's civil wars in 1989 through 1996, and 1996 through 2003, clean water has been an issue in the country and is a major problem for those trying to combat the Ebola virus.

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"A lot of people use hand pumps from chlorinated wells, but when Ebola broke out, people sometimes perspired into the wells and people drank the water and died," Smith said.

Smith, who has lost family and friends to the Ebola outbreak, said as the association's president, he gets information every week of deaths in Liberia that affect local residents.

"To help people cope, we [the association] have a web site and reach out every week in meetings to people here to share condolences and information," Smith said.

Taylor said he is part of a new group of representatives from Liberia and the other two hardest hit West African nations, Sierra Leone and Guinea, that formed to help disseminate information about Ebola and help those back home. The Diaspora Ebola Network members are reaching out to the more than 2.5 million people in the diaspora with ties to the three countries.

"Our goal is to eradicate Ebola from the three countries and we want to partner with agencies, such as Doctors Without Borders, the CDC and get support from those of us in the diaspora who are doctors, intellectuals and others who can help facilitate a solution," Taylor said. "We want to dispel myths about Ebola. It is a disease like any other disease."

Taylor said a West African Ebola conference is planned for Dec. 5 at the Washington Convention Center.

As Taylor mourns the death of his brother and other family members, he said he's bitter toward Liberian government officials for not building hospitals and clinics in rural areas, where Ebola cases are said to have originated. He believes those kinds of investments would have prevented the virus from spreading to Liberia's large cities.

"The Liberian government is to blame for this and needs to do more. There's rampant corruption in Liberia and Liberia's resources have been mismanaged," Taylor said. "The government didn't know how to contain Ebola to the rural areas. No one knew how to treat it but sprayed people [with disinfectants] and hoped they would recover."

But that's not happening in most cases. The death rate of those infected with Ebola is about 70 percent, according to WHO.

Taylor said his children have never visited Liberia and when they saw his brother who died, they were too young to remember him. As he held a framed photo of his brother, he said he's leaving it up to his children if they want to visit Liberia any time soon.

"I'm not looking to go right now," said his teenage daughter, Rogerlyn, as she peered over Taylor to look at the picture of her uncle. "Maybe in five years I'll go to Liberia when all of this is over."

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