By Delia M. Arias De Leon
UNITED NATIONS – The doctors and health workers treating the largest and deadliest Ebola outbreak in history are not only understaffed and overworked, but also ignorant of the disease, resulting in an unprecedented number of medical staff falling sick and severely hindering efforts to contain the epidemic, said the World Health Organization.
In statement released Monday, the WHO announced that of the more than 2,600 confirmed cases of Ebola, 240 are health workers that have been attempting to treat and save the diseased. Of those, more than 120 have died.
The WHO has stated that the astounding number of affected medical professionals has been due to “shortages of personal protective equipment or its improper use, far too few medical staff for such a large outbreak, and the compassion that causes medical staff to work in isolation wards far beyond the number of hours recommended as safe.”
Moreover, the international health body admitted that “neither doctors nor the public are familiar with the disease,” inevitably raising the question of how it will be contained if health workers lack knowledge.
The WHO added that several diseases common in the region, such as malaria, Typhoid fever and Lassa fever, exhibit similar symptoms to Ebola, causing doctors to misdiagnose and not take necessary precautions. According to the WHO, doctors and nurses tend to rush to the patients without wearing the necessary protective gear, because “this is the first instinct of most doctors and nurses: aid the ailing.”
Even when doctors are knowledgeable and aware of the risks, protective gear will often be unavailable, or the equipment itself will be used incorrectly, a potentially fatal mistake when dealing with the highly contagious Ebola. The WHO contends that all the personal protective equipment it dispatches meets international safety standards.
It is estimated that in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the three hardest-hit countries, there are only one to two doctors available per 100,000 people; a number that is steadily declining as doctors fall ill and others refuse to come to work for fear of contracting the disease themselves.
The WHO has stated that because of the loss of so many health workers, it has found it difficult to recruit international medical staff.
Despite this complication, the international health body has today shut down one of its only two laboratories in Sierra Leone, after a Senegalese epidemiologist working there was infected with the disease.
Christy Feig, a spokeswoman for the organization, said it was “a temporary measure to take care of the welfare of our remaining workers.” She did not specify how long the shutdown would last, only saying, “After our assessment they will return.”
The area from which the staff were withdrawn, Kailahun, has been one of the hardest hit by the disease. Feig said she could not assess how much the withdrawal of WHO staff would harm the containment effort.
The Senegalese medic, the first worker deployed by the WHO to be infected, will be evacuated from Sierra Leone in the coming days.
The lack of doctors, lack of knowledge of Ebola and the new shutdown could be catastrophic when combined with the recent surfacing of another strain of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Reuters reported Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, one of the medical charities most involved in trying to stop the spread of the disease, announced it could provide only limited help to the country, due to the epidemic’s massive drain on its resources and staff.
Jeroen Beijnberger, MSF medical coordinator in Congo, remarked, “Usually, we would be able to mobilize specialist hemorrhagic fever teams, but we are currently responding to the massive epidemic in West Africa.”
According to the U.N. mission in Congo, 13 people there have died from Ebola, including five health workers.
Horrified by what seems an uncontrollable disease, numerous airlines have imposed flight restrictions into and out of Ebola-affected countries in West Africa, which the U.N. has cautioned against.
In a press statement Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman said the bans, while understandable, are detrimental to the well-being of the people in those countries.
He also reiterated that, according to the WHO, “Ebola is not spread through airborne contact; Ebola is spread through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with the virus.”
Delia M. Arias De Leon writes for WND at the United Nations in New York City. For breaking news about the U.N. follow her on twitter @deliaADL