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COVID-19: Lessons from Liberia on the importance of contact tracing

During the Ebola crisis of 2014-2016, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government oversaw a regime of contact tracing that eventually ended the transmission of the disease in Liberia. The steps that were taken to contain Ebola were featured on NPR’s global health and development blog, Goats and Soda, as part of a report on what developing countries can teach the world about potential approaches to combat coronavirus.

EJS Center board member Dr. Raj Panjabi discussed how his organization Last Mile Health supported the Liberian government to design and instate the initiative that helped end Ebola transmission. He spoke about the role of community health workers and the importance of hiring contact tracers with good social connections and capacity to build relationships. Dr. Panjabi said:

“The contact tracers got hired and chosen from within the community. They’d locate the listed contact because they know the community. They have trust with the community. And they’d identify any additional contacts who meet that definition of exposure that were missed in the initial investigation.”

Dr. Panjabi noted that the quality of the contact tracing is crucial. The health workers need to find every contact who may have been exposed and monitor them closely.

“And if you do that right, that strategy will eventually extinguish all transmission lines and an epidemic,” he said. “In Liberia, that was exactly the practice that led to the last case being identified. And then the epidemic halted.”

He suggested that countries around the world will need contact tracing programs in place in order to reopen safely after COVID-19 closures, and that the program could become a source of employment.

Read the full article and listen to the report here.

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