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World >

Medics still at risk from Ebola virus

by a staff reporter


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Penned in: residents of West Point, a large slum in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, who are being held in an Ebola-virus quarantine area, complain to a security officer as they wait for their relatives to bring them food and essentials

Credit: Reuters

Penned in: residents of West Point, a large slum in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, who are being held in an Ebola-virus quarantine area, complain to a security officer as they wait for their relatives to bring them food and essentials

THE floating Christian hospital organisation Mercy Ships has halted its latest visit to West Africa, as a result of the Ebola-virus outbreak that is affecting the region.

So far, 1552 people are reported to have been killed by the virus, which began in Guinea but has spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. Another outbreak was reported last weekend in the Congo. On Thursday, the World Health Organisation warned that the number of cases could rise to 20,000 (3069 cases have been reported to date).

The MV Africa Mercy is now docked at the Canary Islands because it is not equipped for an infectious epidemic.

"Multi-bed wards and limited isolation facilities, close proximity to crew accommodation, and dining for families and children are but a few restraints," the founder of the charity, Don Stephens, said. "We also hire 200 day crew in each port as part of our training and capacity building for Africa. . . Africa is and remains our priority, but crew safety drives every decision."

Nearly ten per cent of those infected with the virus have been doctors and medical staff treating victims of the outbreak.

A 29-year-old volunteer nurse in Sierra Leone, William Pooley, has become the first British person to contract the illness. Mr Pooley, who worked for the Shepherd's Hospice, volunteered to work on an Ebola ward when he heard that medical staff had died and patients had been abandoned.

He has since been flown home, and is in isolation at the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, where he has been given a dose of the experimental drug ZMapp, which has helped some patients (News, 15 August).

The executive director of the Shepherd's Hospice, Gabriel Madiye, said that Mr Pooley had been aware of the risks, but was determined to work there. "We consider him a hero," he said. "Somebody who is sacrificing to provide care in very difficult circumstances - when our own health workers are running away."

The World Health Organisation said that the "heavy toll on health-care workers" had consequences that further impeded control efforts, such as the closure of health facilities. "Ebola has taken the lives of prominent doctors in Sierra Leona and Liberia, depriving these countries not only of experienced and dedicated medical care but also of inspiring national heroes," it said.

"In many cases, medical staff are at risk because no protective equipment is available - not even gloves and face masks."

The current outbreak is the largest ever, and has infected an estimated 2615 people. Just over half of those infected have died.

Two aid workers from the United States working in Liberia were released from hospital last week after recovering from the virus (News, 8 August). Dr Kent Brantly, who was working as doctor with Samaritan's Purse, and a colleague, Nancy Writebol, from the partner organisation Serving in Mission, were also treated with ZMapp. Supplies of the drug are now exhausted.

At a news conference on his release from hospital, Dr Brantly said: "I am for ever thankful to God for sparing my life, and am glad for any attention my sickness has attracted for the plight of West Africa in the midst of this epidemic."

The president of Samaritan's Purse, Dr Franklin Graham, responded to critics: "Instead of cheering for lives saved . . . some are now debating whether a heroic doctor like Brantly should have received the experimental treatment . . . a doctor who will say thank you by returning to some of the darkest, dirtiest, loneliest places on earth to bring hope and healing to others. Where is the ethical dilemma?"

The US Episcopal Church's Relief and Development teams are working in the region, distributing medical supplies and information about the virus. The Archbishop of the Internal Province of West Africa, Dr Jonathan Hart, told Episcopal News that people were struggling with conflicting desires to care for their sick family members, and prepare the bodies of those who had died, with the necessity of not coming into contact with the bodily fluids that spread the virus.

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