Ebola outbreak: We know the disease is killing people, but is the panicked response killing people too?

Hospitals and health services close as panic about the disease is putting immense pressure on the resources and services that remain, while NGOs and commercial firms have pulled employees out of the region.

There is a new term used by doctors on the front line of the battle to control the worst Ebola outbreak the world has seen: Ebola phobia.

As panic has swept through West Africa and beyond in the wake of the lethal virus, a British doctor working in Freetown, Sierra Leone described today how fear of the disease is causing more harm than the disease itself.

Terry Gibson, former consultant physician at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust who is volunteering at Connaught Hospital, the largest in Freetown, said organisations in the city had withdrawn staff, closed services and abandoned projects.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Gibson said: “ Some hospitals have closed. In one case they had a patient with suspected Ebola, it caused problems for them and they shut their doors. A women’s welfare service in Freetown has shut. NGOs and commercial companies have pulled their people out. That means more pressure on us.”

 

No one knows how many patients may have died because the medical care that might have saved them has been withdrawn. Connaught Hospital, which has remained open throughout the crisis, has had seven confirmed cases of Ebola and 28 suspected. The symptoms – fever, vomiting and diarrhoea – are impossible to distinguish from other tropical diseases without a blood test. All the patients were isolated and treated by medical staff in full protective gear until either confirmed or cleared. Two suspected cases are currently being monitored.

“We take a blood sample but there is only one laboratory that can test for Ebola. It can take 48 hours to get a result back – in one case I had to wait four days. During that time you can’t do the usual investigations or take more blood – it is too dangerous. The patients are scared, relatives get angry and sometimes they escape. A patient in a wheelchair came in on Friday with a fever. We were pretty sure he had the virus but when he learned he was going to be put in isolation, he got out of his wheelchair and somehow managed to run away. We don’t know where he is. That is very dangerous,” Dr Gibson said.

Social Commentator Alfred Sirleaf (centre rear) gives comment on current events in Liberia Social Commentator Alfred Sirleaf (centre rear) gives comment on current events in Liberia (AP)
Police have been called to keep patients in hospital and to trace those who had disappeared, he said. In one case a woman who had left the hospital was picked up in Freetown and persuaded to return, but she died in the ambulance. At a neighbouring hospital seven patients escaped from isolation.

READ MORE: An important lesson about aid
Sierra Leone and Liberia announce state of emergency
UK officials 'not prepared' to deal with virus

“What patients don’t want to hear is that they have got Ebola. They think it is a death sentence. As soon as they are isolated they know – it tells them what they have got and they run away.”

There have been more than 100 deaths in Sierra Leone but the first cases in Freetown did not officially occur until June. Many more are thought to have died in rural areas and remain uncounted.  Loudspeaker vans have been touring the city streets urging people with symptoms to go to hospital for treatment, and shops and businesses have been providing chlorinated water outside for people to wash their hands.

Dr Gibson said: “You can add substantially to the official figures. Ebola was relatively late to arrive in Freetown and it is going to get worse. I expect it to be around for at least six months.”

Dr Oliver Johnson, who leads a programme partnering Connaught Hospital with three UK hospitals – King’s College, Guy’s and St Thomas’, and the Maudsley – described the unique challenge the outbreak of Ebola presented.

A man sprays disinfectant inside a government building in a bid to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus A man sprays disinfectant inside a government building in a bid to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus (AP)
Writing in the King’s in the field blog, he said: “Many NGOs worried if one of their staff died of Ebola they might be prosecuted or have funding withdrawn. One stopped doing outreach clinics in a local urban slum – the only health service for many vulnerable patients, some of whom will certainly have died as a result. At what point do you decide it is safe to return – how many weeks, months or years do you stay away?”

Some medical organisations have evacuated international staff, he explained, while others have put restrictions on them going into clinical areas. “Is it not discriminatory to withdraw internationals whilst expecting local staff to stay at their posts and face the challenge alone?”

An official at the Ministry of Health said it felt like being back in the civil war “as NGOs packed their SUVs and abandoned their local colleagues at the first sign of danger.”

With the rainy season underway there were fears of a repeat of the 2011 cholera outbreak before Ebola arrived.

Dr Johnson wrote: “We know Ebola is killing people. But is the Ebola response killing people too?”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
Sport
Jonny Evans and Papiss Cisse come together
football
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The beat is on: Alfred Doda, Gjevat Kelmendi and Orli Shuka in ‘Hyena’
filmReview: Hyena takes corruption and sleaziness to a truly epic level
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life