UNITED NATIONS – Health ministers from 11 West African countries began a two-day Emergency Ministerial meeting in Accra, Ghana, Wednesday amid concern the outbreak of the Ebola virus that began in Ghana could spread across their region as an uncontrolled pandemic.
In a statement distributed at the United Nations, the World Health Organization, WHO, classified the current Ebola outbreak as the worst ever.
The outbreak traces back to cases appearing in rural Guinea in March, which spread across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. So far, a total of 750 cases and 455 deaths have been reported in the affected countries, according to WHO.
Reuters reported Wednesday the Red Cross was forced to temporarily suspend some operations in the country’s southeast after a marked Red Cross vehicle was confronted and stopped by a knife-wielding mob that was concerned the medical workers were responsible for spreading the disease.
The WHO regional director for Africa, Dr. Luis Gomes Sambo, speaking at the opening session of the Accra meeting, called for urgent, collective cross-actions to bring an end to the outbreak.
“Your leadership is critical in ensuring that preventive and containment measures are effectively implemented in your countries,” Sambo said. “To this end, I would like to stress the need to redeploy human resources and reallocate funds to facilitate operations in affected communities.”
Sambo observed that the continuing spread of the Ebola virus is largely associated with some cultural practices and traditional beliefs that are contrary to recommended public health preventive measures. Also, the extensive movement of people within and across borders has facilitated the rapid spread of the infection across three countries.
“In Liberia, our biggest challenge is denial, fear and panic. Our people are very much afraid of the disease,” Bernice Dahn, Liberia’s deputy health minister, told Reuters at the Accra meeting. “People are afraid but do not believe that the disease exists and because of that people get sick and the community members hide them and bury them, against all the norms we have put in place.”
Reuters noted that health authorities are trying to stop relatives of Ebola victims from giving traditional funerals in which family members wash the body and eat a meal in the presence of the deceased prior to burial.
Given the highly contagious nature of the disease, WHO guidelines require health care medical professionals working with Ebola patients to wear full rubber protection suits, including face mask and goggles, gloves, rubber boots and a full-length apron in Guinea’s sweltering heat and humidity.
In a series of heart-breaking emails written home, U.S.-based doctor William Fisher described the brutal reality of the rampant Ebola epidemic he experienced working for three weeks with physicians from Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, in a cement building in West Guinea set up to treat victims.
In an email June 2, Fisher described the death of a patient:
Today was a pretty tough day – one of the first two patients I admitted on May 30 died. I walked into his room and he was on the floor half naked surrounded by bloody emesis and diarrhea. I put him back in bed, bathed him, and put fresh clothes on him and as I finished he died.
It’s pretty emotional to bathe a 27-year-old man who was incredibly strong and rendered completely helpless. His sister is next door and will likely die in the next hour. This is all in front of the other patients in the room, many of whom are family members or neighbors. The despair is suffocating. My computer is running out of batteries. Sorry, more to come.
His description of the workers clothed with a head-to-foot rubber suit was equally compelling:
Yesterday, I went into the isolation zone carrying a small thermometer in my pocket to measure the temperature in my suit – 46 C or about 115 F. We spend between 1-2 hours in there at a time, typically, 2-3 times per day. You lose all sense of time once you’re inside, but have to pay very close attention to your breathing and heart rate and head out when they start to increase, as it takes 10 minutes to actually get out.
Addressing the delegates at the ministerial meeting in Accra, Dr. Sherry Ayittey, the minister of health of Ghana, said: “We are here to make a real difference … a difference that will be felt beyond this room for millions of people in dire need for solutions. We have a small window of opportunity to prevent the outbreak of Ebola from spreading further.”
The WHO reports Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and in a village in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo, situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.
“Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals,” the WHO website notes.
“In Africa,” WHO says, “infection has been documented through the handling of infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found dead or ill in the rainforest.”
Ebola spreads from close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn the symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain and lack of appetite. Some patients also experience a rash, red eyes, hiccups, cough, sore throat, chest pain, difficulty breathing and swallowing, as well as bleeding inside and outside of the body.
After an incubation period of between two and 21 days, the Ebola virus can cause death a few days after the virus appears in particularly virulent cases where the body organs shut down and internal bleeding becomes unstoppable.
The Ebola virus has alarmed international health officials because the frequency of international air travel has increased the possibility the outbreak in one nation might quickly be transmitted to other countries by patients in the incubation phase of the infection.
Delia M. Arias De Léon, a Wellesley College political science student currently serving as a WND intern at the U.N. in New York City, contributed to this article.