HARBEL, Liberia—With 932 reported deaths and more than 1,700 reported cases as of Aug. 6, the outbreak of Ebola virus in four West African nations is the most serious since the virus was first identified nearly four decades ago.
Meanwhile, executives of Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations say they are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of Ebola on their 240-square-mile natural rubber plantation at Harbel, about 35 miles from the Liberian capital of Monrovia.
Officials at the plantation were first notified of Ebola in the region in late March, according to Steve Shelton, senior vice president of technology, manufacturing and procurement for Bridgestone Americas.
At about the same time, the first case of Ebola on the plantation was reported, according to Shelton. The victim was the wife of a plantation employee who caught the virus while nursing a relative who lived outside the plantation.
About 80,000 people live within the borders of the Bridgestone plantation, of whom just under 7,500 are Bridgestone employees, according to Shelton. Neither he nor Don Darden, executive director of communications for Bridgestone Americas, could say exactly how many cases of Ebola virus had been reported on the plantation.
However, as soon as Bridgestone learned of the Ebola threat, it immediately formed two task forces to set the plan of action to prevent the disease's spread, Shelton and Darden said.
The first task force, based in Harbel, consists of 12 people, both local and expatriate employees, headed by Ed Garcia, the plantation's managing director.
The second, based at Bridgestone Americas headquarters in Nashville, included Shelton, Darden, Bridgestone's head of security and members of the Human Relations department, Shelton and Darden said.
The task forces acted immediately to distribute protective clothing at the plantation, including masks, gloves and suits. “Since the virus is spread by bodily fluids, everything to prevent that contact is provided,” Shelton said.
They also distributed flyers among plantation residents, detailing how to avoid contracting the virus, and broadcast information about Ebola on its “Voice of Firestone” radio station at Harbel, Shelton and Darden said.
Bridgestone has a 300-bed hospital on the plantation that is one of very few still operating in Liberia, according to Shelton and Darden. When the Ebola threat was announced, the company converted an outbuilding at the hospital into an isolation ward for patients with confirmed cases of the virus, they said.
Another building on the plantation, an unused schoolhouse, was transformed into a “monitoring ward” to house patients suspected of having the virus. If patients do not show symptoms after the 21-day incubation period, they are allowed back into the plantation's general population, Shelton and Darden said.
Bridgestone's preventative actions were so successful that, in early May, the plantation passed 21 days without a further Ebola case being reported, Shelton and Darden said. They credited Garcia and Dr. Lindon Mabande, head doctor at the plantation, with the success of the preventative program.
“Communication was our best tool,” Shelton said. “There were a lot of misconceptions about the virus, how you got it and how you handled patients who have it. Thanks to the brochures and the Voice of Firestone, we were able to correct them.”
During the crisis, Bridgestone has been in constant touch with the U.S. Embassy, the Centers for Disease Control and Doctors Without Borders, according to Shelton and Darden. They also have conferred frequently with members of the Liberian government, though the government is limited in what it is able to do, they said.
“This is a country that is still very much in recovery after its civil war,” Darden said.