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Ebola Supply Shipments Delayed By Transportation Issues


You know, hearing Ofeibea describe those health workers taking off their protective suits and goggles at the end of a long day is a reminder of how important medical supplies are in this fight. Having the right supplies can be a matter of life and death for doctors and others. The United Nations is appealing for $600 million for more medical equipment, but finding the supplies hasn't really been the big challenge. The trouble has been getting them to West Africa. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Thad Adkins carefully backs a box truck into a bay at Synergy Health, a medical equipment company in Elkridge, Maryland.


NORTHAM: Adkins is with the nonprofit Brother's Brother Foundation, which supports health care systems worldwide - including 70 clinics and hospitals in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Adkins' pick up here today is 500 to 600 green surgical gowns.

THAD ADKINS: So these are gowns, level two, three and four protection.

NORTHAM: What does that mean?

ADKINS: So they have a little film in the area around the sleeves and the chest that adds an extra protective barrier.

NORTHAM: That's important for health care workers dealing with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Adkins says Brother's Brother is seeing an increased response to the crisis.

ADKINS: That's anything from people bringing just, like, walkers and wheelchairs over now to people wanting to volunteer, stuff like that as well.

NORTHAM: Much needed medical supplies are rolling into humanitarian organization in the U.S. and elsewhere, but getting the equipment and medicine to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is not so easy. Jarrod Goentzel is the director of the Humanitarian Response Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His group, working together with the Boston Children's Hospital and the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, compiled nine pallets or about a ton of supplies - protective gloves, masks, goggles and boots and chlorine to keep the equipment and protective suits clean. Goentzel says they're desperately needed supplies.

JARROD GOENTZEL: I've been seeing reports of people, you know, for the mask and the head cover, they've been cutting things out of other materials. They've been fabricating their own personal protective equipment in many cases. This is the kind of equipment that, you know, we can't send too much of this in some ways.

NORTHAM: The pallets were picked up by freight forwarders on August 15, but sat at JFK Airport in New York for more than two weeks because airlines had begun canceling their flights into the countries hit by Ebola, severely curtailing the delivery of equipment and international healthcare experts. David Nabarro, the U.N.'s senior coordinator for Ebola, says isolating Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea complicates the response.

DAVID NABARRO: We do understand why some airlines have discontinued their flights. We understand the fear, but we also believe that through the proper application of precautions when people are preparing to board flights, it's possible to avoid risk both to the airline personnel and to other passengers.

NORTHAM: Shipping companies are having their own challenges. Eva Kops is the managing director of Maersk Lines in Liberia. She says increasingly neighboring countries are turning container ships away if they've docked in one of the countries with Ebola.

EVA KOPS: It's like dominoes. You know, one country does it. The others, they start fearing the situation, and then they follow right after. We saw first Ivory Coast, and we saw Nigeria. Then came Gabon and then Cameroon, and I think it's not the end of it.

NORTHAM: Kops says Maersk, one of the leading shipping companies in West Africa, has had to reorganize its network.

KOPS: So what we've done now is that we've set up a service that is dedicated to these three countries, meaning that they will only call these three ports and then go back to the Mediterranean where we have our hub.

NORTHAM: Kops says Maersk volumes are down about 30 percent, but she says it's important to keep the company running as close to normal as possible to make sure food and water and medical supplies can reach the increasingly isolated population. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.