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As many doctors retreat, ebola fight grows harder

By SHERI FINK

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 11:35 p.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 11:35 p.m. MDT

Health workers are handed personal protective gear by a team leader, right, before collecting the bodies of the deceased from streets in Monrovia, Liberia, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014. New figures released by the World Health Organization showed that Liberia has recorded more Ebola deaths — 413 — than any of the other affected countries. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

Abbas Dulleh, AP

Enlarge photo»

When people started dying of Ebola in Liberia, Clarine Vaughn faced a wrenching choice: Should she send home, for their own health and safety, four American doctors working for HEARTT, the aid group she led there? Or should she keep them in the country without proper supplies or training to fight the virulent, contagious disease, which was already spreading panic?

After much agonizing, Vaughn, who lives in Liberia, pulled the doctors out and canceled plans to bring in more. The African physicians and nurses left behind told her they understood, but felt abandoned. They said, “We need you guys here,” she recalled.

Since then, Vaughn has wondered if the American doctors might have made a difference, and she asked the aid group AmeriCares to help. It sent in a planeload of supplies that landed in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, last Sunday.

The departure of many Western development workers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the West African countries hit hardest by Ebola, has further weakened the region’s understaffed health systems at the very moment they are facing one of the gravest public health crises ever. Liberia, population 4 million, has fewer than 250 doctors left in the entire country, according to the Liberia Medical and Dental Council. Seven doctors there have contracted Ebola, and two of them have died.

“The locals’ seeing this mass exodus of expatriates has contributed to the sense that there’s an apocalypse happening and they’re in it on their own,” said Raphael Frankfurter, executive director of the Wellbody Alliance, which provides clinical services in a diamond-mining district of Sierra Leone bordering Guinea, where the outbreak began.

Frankfurter, too, sent his four American volunteers home for fear they might fall ill. They left behind 160 national staff. “It’s certainly not in line with our values, because it’s just such a glaring inequality,” he said. But “it’s a very scary place to get sick right now.”

As an array of international organizations, wealthy countries and charitable groups gear up to provide desperately needed resources to fight the outbreak, the absent doctors and volunteers are a reminder of the daunting practical obstacles. Many African health workers battling Ebola are contracting it themselves. At least 170 workers have gotten the disease, according to the World Health Organization, and more than 80 have died.

Those sickened include Dr. Kent Brantly, an American now recovering in an Atlanta hospital after receiving ZMapp, an experimental drug. Three Liberian patients received ZMapp on Friday, according to Tolbert G. Nyenswah, a Liberian assistant minister of health and social welfare. The patients signed consent forms stating that they understood the risks of the untested drug and waived liability for any adverse effects.

The doses had been flown into Liberia after appeals from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia to President Barack Obama and senior U.S. officials. Its arrival last week lifted morale and “raised the hope of everybody,” Johnson Sirleaf said.

The situation, however, was volatile. On Saturday afternoon, several hundred people in an area of Monrovia known as the West Point slum broke through the gates of a former school that had been converted days earlier into a holding center for people with suspected Ebola.

Samuel Tarplah, 48, a nurse running the center, said Saturday evening that the protesters wanted to shut it down. “They told us that we don’t want an Ebola holding center in our community.” He said the intruders stole mattresses, personal protective equipment, even buckets of chlorine that had just been delivered. “They took everything.”

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