By Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer | Friday, October 24, 2014
Before the last round of safety protocols were issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the world’s largest tire maker may have created a blueprint on how to best slow the deadly virus Ebola.
On March 30, Bridgestone Americas received a phone call at its U.S. headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.
Courtesy of Bridgestone Group
Ebola care team
The spouse of an employee of Firestone Liberia, the Bridgestone Corporation’s rubber tree plantation, had recently returned home from caring for a dying relative elsewhere in the African nation. It was soon evident that the woman had contracted the Ebola virus – a disease with a 50 percent average fatality rate that raged strongest along Africa’s West Bank.
Firestone Liberia immediately quarantined the woman and her family, and within days had implemented a response system to deal with the deadly virus. Though her young son initially showed signs of possible Ebola, the symptoms passed and he survived. The woman, however, died.
“At the time, there was really no place to take this woman,” said Don Darden, executive director of communications for Firestone America. “We were told, ‘you need to figure it out.’”
Employees immediately developed and executed plans, including transforming three of the plantation’s schools into treatment and quarantine locations. Within two weeks, workers re-constructed an outpatient building behind a Firestone Liberia hospital into a treatment facility system.
Unsure if they would need more treatment room, the group poured a foundation and erected another facility in three days.
“They hit it head on,” Darden said.
Firestone Liberia’s story illustrates both the aggressive treatment surrounding Ebola and the blurred boundaries between employees, families, and even surrounding communities of Firestone Liberia – the 88-year-old rubber production plant that spans 185 square miles and employs nearly 8,000 people.
“We have a total of nearly 80,000 people that live within the border of the Firestone plantation,” Darden told Land Line. “That is a lot of people. And what we’ve seen at Firestone Liberia now is a considerable reduction of cases and a stabilizing of new Ebola cases.”
Even with the positives, the Ebola virus’s power is staggering.
As of Oct. 22, Firestone Liberia had identified 78 Ebola cases. Fifty-five of the 78 cases resulted in death. Two individuals were in the plantation’s Ebola Treatment Unit and 21 people survived the virus after contracting it.
Generations of presence
Founded in 1926, the Firestone Liberia plantation produces liquid latex and block rubber. About 12 percent of the rubber Bridgestone uses to make tires comes from the plantation, a concept the company also employs in Asia. The block rubber is used to make passenger vehicle tires in Aiken, S.C., and for agricultural machine tires made in Des Moines, Iowa.
The plantation is so large that many communities exist within its borders. Clergy, teachers and others help define the community, and were important in gaining trust and communicating once the Ebola virus threatened Liberia in the spring, Darden said.
Firestone Liberia employs 450 teachers at 26 schools, and with a plan in place, the company used its radio station and teachers to educate people within communities at the plantation about the disease and proper ways to contain it.
Up until that point, misinformation and fear had actually hurt the cause of containing Ebola.
“You had people who may have been exposed to the virus and did not want treatment because they weren’t sure what the treatment would be,” Darden said. “Or they’d say, ‘that is where people go to die.’ And all that did was just continue to expose people. So a lot of what we had to do was change the mindset.”
Within the plantation walls, anyone who came into contact with a person showing possible Ebola symptoms was given a choice to voluntarily go into quarantine. Nearly every person did, allowing potential cases to be isolated. In addition, family members of those who may have come into contact were given home healthcare kits and advice on how to keep their residences sanitary.
The company wanted also to quell the stigma surrounding those who survived the disease.
Firestone Liberia has introduced a reintegration program resembling a graduation. Ebola survivors and their community are invited to a celebration when they’re cleared of the disease. The survivor is given a certificate of having a clean bill of health, and their doctor speaks. The survivors are presented with new mattresses and other items that are destroyed during the cleaning phase of a person’s home during quarantine.
Besides serving as a celebration, Darden said the reintegration parties also communicate truth about Ebola.
“It helps us let the others in that community know – if I come into contact with it, I need to do the right thing for myself and others and get treatment and the help I need,” he said. “You can survive it. You can live with this. But if you’ve been exposed you need to get the help and treatment that you need.”
As attention and the disease itself spread beyond Africa, Firestone Liberia’s treatment and containment methods gained attention.
Firestone Liberia saw zero new Ebola cases between April and August, when a new wave of the virus again claimed victims. In recent weeks the plantation has seen the rate of Ebola growth decrease below averages elsewhere in Liberia.
In October, the weekly Ebola growth rate in the area surrounding Liberia’s capital jumped from 9 to 16 percent. In Liberia’s Margibi County, where the Firestone Liberia plantation is located, Ebola growth dropped from 7 to 3 percent during that same week.
“A lot of that disparity can be attributed to higher concentrations of people and that kind of thing,” Darden said. “But certainly, there is a lot of truth in the success of the procedures being put into place at Firestone Liberia.”
In mid-October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report that praised Firestone Liberia’s treatment of Ebola.
“An important result of Firestone’s response is the success with which community members identified suspected Ebola cases, agreed to voluntary quarantine in dedicated facilities, and minimized stigmatization of Ebola survivors.”
Specifically, the CDC noted Firestone’s rapid response and use of infrastructure to identify possible Ebola cases and stop spread of the disease. The company’s strategy of describing the disease and handing out protective gear and waste disposal equipment to family members of possible Ebola patients is unique, CDC said in the report.
“Firestone’s provision of resources and monitoring of contacts in both the plantation community and quarantine facility settings likely facilitated prompt identification of Ebola cases during the 21-day observation period,” CDC wrote. “The experience of Firestone might both support the prompt recognition of Ebola cases and limit transmission among family members who provide care to Ebola patients in the household.”
A ‘resilient’ people
Darden traveled to Firestone Liberia in July for a celebration of the company’s efforts to combat Ebola. He said Firestone Liberia team members related the ongoing efforts against Ebola to “flying an airplane while you’re reading the manual.”
In September, Bridgestone Corporation, parent company of Bridgestone Americas and Firestone Liberia, announced donations of $500,000 to Samaritan’s Purse to combat Ebola in Liberia and $500,000 to support UNICEF’s efforts in Liberia and Nigeria.
Darden said Samaritan’s Purse had exhibited outside the box thinking that interested Bridgestone. The company has worked with UNICEF for years, he said.
“We have an established presence in West Africa,” Darden said. “When it came time, we knew we wanted to make some donations to help support what’s going on there.”
The money will be used to help stop the spread of Ebola through public awareness, the facilitation of delivery of in-home care supplies for the sick; enhancing medical treatment; and providing support for children left orphaned due to the epidemic.
Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, said the donation would help the organization treat more people.
“We thank Bridgestone Americas for its support in the fight against Ebola,” Graham said, according to the release. “Firestone Liberia is working tirelessly to protect and treat the approximate 80,000 people living within its community, and with their support, we’re able to broaden those efforts in the larger Liberian community.”
Bridgestone is urging anyone who wants to help the cause to consider donations to UNICEF and Samaritan’s Purse.
The Ebola virus’ spread to North America and Europe has again stoked fears and concerns. In August, Firestone America began voluntarily limiting non-essential employee travel to Liberia. Firestone America employees are in contact often with Firestone Liberia, he said.
“We help them as much as we can but we’re so far away,” he said. “They’re literally on the front lines and using ingenuity at every turn to tackle this situation. And they’ve done such a phenomenal job.”
The woman diagnosed with Ebola back in March died from the disease. After being quarantined and treated, however, her children and husband survived.
Darden praised the employees and community at Firestone Liberia.
“This isn’t the first period of tough times they’ve experienced,” Darden said of Firestone Liberia. “There was a 14-year civil war that nearly destroyed the place. They’re a very resilient, ingenious group and it’s something to watch them just tackle the situation.
“They have achieved such incredible results, and they’re receiving worldwide recognition for it.”
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