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NHS Trust who is volunteering at Connaught Hospital, the largest in Freetown, said organisations in the city had withdrawn staff, closed services and abandoned projects.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No one knows how many patients may have died because the medical care that might have saved them has been withdrawn.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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
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

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea