Ebola outbreak continues as aid workers plead for more funds
Charlie Cooper is Health Correspondent for The Independent, i, and The Independent on Sunday, writing on the NHS, medical advances, and international health. Since joining the papers as an editorial assistant, he has been nominated for young journalist of the year at both the Press Awards and the British Journalism Awards.
Thursday 31 July 2014
International aid workers combating West Africa’s Ebola outbreak lack basic protective clothing such as face masks, gloves and protective body suits, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said, as affected countries announced they would be sending troops to enforce quarantine zones in the worst-hit areas.
The WHO is calling on the international community to donate an additional $100m to the Ebola relief effort as the outbreak enters its sixth month, with no sign of infection rates slowing. Fears over the safety of health workers in the region has already led one aid agency, the USA’s Peace Corps, to withdraw 340 volunteers from the region and the WHO has now called for donations of the protective clothing required for close contact with Ebola victims.
As many as 600 extra medical staff are required on the ground in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, said WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl.
“We need staff on the ground; above all people in the clinics, at the coalface,” he told The Independent. “Another thing we need to do is to ensure that the medical workers are properly protected. There is not enough PPE [personal protective equipment] We don’t just need people, we need the equipment.”
There have already been well publicised cases of health professionals contracting the virus themselves. One of Sierra Leone’s leading doctors, Sheik Umar Khan, died of Ebola on Tuesday after treating patients with the disease. Two American doctors from aid group SIM USA have also contracted the disease, and two Peace Corps volunteers have been isolated after contact with Ebola victims, although they were said not to be symptomatic. Ebola is transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, making protective clothing essential for health workers.
The presidents of the three affected countries will meet the WHO’s director general Dr Margaret Chan in the Guinean capital Conakry tomorrow for urgent talks on the crisis. Health officials at the WHO are increasingly concerned that the current response to the outbreak, which has been led by international medical staff supporting underresourced and overstretched local clinics, has been insufficient to control the spread the disease.
Sierra Leone, which has seen the most cases of Ebola, announced that police and military forces would be sent in to affected areas to control movement to and from quarantined areas. In neighbouring Liberia, security forces have been ordered to “enforce” infection control measures, including the quarantining of “several communities”.
Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, right, demonstrates to people how to wash their hands properly in order to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus (AP)
The Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has also closed all the country’s schools, ordered non-essential government employees to take 30 days compulsory leave, and declared Friday a non-working day in Liberia, to allow public spaces to be disinfected.
Both President Koroma and President Sirleaf have cancelled visits to Washington to attend the US-Africa summit next week.
The outbreak is now entering its sixth month and shows no sign of abating. In just four days last week, 121 new cases and 56 deaths were recorded across the three affected countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where the first cases were recorded in February. One man has also died in Nigeria, after travelling by plane via Togo and Ghana – sparking a new wave of international concern about the outbreak, which has now claimed 729 lives.
Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area (Reuters)
The WHO said that even though Nigeria had still only seen one case, the arrival of the virus into Africa’s most populous nation was “a significant development in the course of this outbreak”.
Hopes that transmission might be slowing down in Guinea, the epicentre of the outbreak, have proved short-lived, with 33 new cases and 20 deaths in just four days last week.
Sierra Leone, which has recorded the highest number of cases, has declared a public health emergency. As well as measures to quarantine Ebola-hit areas, President Ernest Bai Koroma has ordered that travellers at airports will have to wash their hands with disinfectant and have their temperatures checked. Ethiopia and Kenya have also begun screening passengers at airports, while two airlines – Togo’s Asky and Nigeria’s Arik Air – have suspended flights to Sierra Leone.
Despite the regional measures, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that is not ordering any travel restrictions or border closures as a result of the Ebola outbreak. In a statement issued after several days consultation with the WHO, the IATA said that there was a low risk to other passengers even if an Ebola patient was on their plane.
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