Ebola epidemic raging ‘out of control’ in West Africa

Doctors Without Borders staff prepare isolation and treatment areas for their Ebola, hemorrhagic fever operations, in Gueckedou, Guinea. --AP Photo/Kjell Gunnar Beraas, MSF

The ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa shows little sign of slowing down. There have been 337 reported deaths and 528 cases, according to the World Health Organization, since March. Yesterday, the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders is warned that not enough resources are on the ground to contain the outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

“The epidemic is out of control,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. “Ebola is no longer a public health issue limited to Guinea. It is affecting the whole of West Africa.”

He says that the group is struggling to deal with the large number of suspected cases. They are responsible for treating 470 patients suspected of having Ebola since March. Much of the challenge is due to the fact that this is the first outbreak of the disease in the region. Infected persons are not going straight to medical facilities due to misinformation about Ebola and a distrust in healthcare facilities.

“We have reached our limits,” said Janssens. “Despite the human resources and equipment deployed by Doctors Without Borders in the three affected countries, we are no longer able to send teams to the new outbreak sites.”

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The 300 international and national staff for Doctors Without Borders working in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia is not enough. The group is working alongside the UN, government officials in the three countries and other groups. Given the lack of resources, it is possible that the situation is wore than the UN estimated. Sierra Leone says there have been 103 confirmed cases of Ebola, 11 more than the WHO figure of 92 cases.

EU West Africa Ebola Map

The countries are undertaking measures to prevent the spread of the disease by closing down borders and implementing check points. The current strain of Ebola has roughly a 90% death rate and there is no cure. It is spread by people through body fluids, meaning that a simple touch of someone infected could transfer the virus. Health officials are trying to identify cases, isolate individuals with Ebola and treating those with symptoms.

The WHO is providing technical support for the three countries. It says that it will hold a meeting with the governments in Ghana on July 2. Janssen says that more is needed from everyone involved. He urged the WHO and regional governments to “deploy the resources necessary for an epidemic of this scale.” That includes medical staff, more awareness raising for the general public and training on how to treat people with Ebola.

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Solving the crisis will require working with both governments and people living in the countries, said Pierre Formenty, a WHO specialist to the Guardian.

“The medical corps on their own cannot stop this epidemic. It is only with the help of the population that we can fight this epidemic and stop it,” said Formenty, to the Guardian. “In an area where the quality of health services is not optimal, the populations have struggled to understand why we were asking them to make such an effort and probably we have not been able to explain both the disease and the means of control to the populations.”

Janssen says that Doctors Without Borders can no longer dispatch help to new areas struck by Ebola. The fact that the slow burning outbreak has started to pick up steam is most disconcerting to those involved. Detected cases in the capital of Liberia pose a major public health threat given how easily the virus is spread from person to person. He hopes that leaders with heed his call.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.