There are not enough health workers responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So far, Ebola has infected more than 4,000 people and killed 2,218 across Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal. Most signs point to things getting worse before the countries and healthcare workers can get the outbreak under control in the coming months.
The number of cases is expected to more than quadruple by October if things do not change. A prediction by Columbia University researchers says that the number of deaths will also increase significantly, to 10,000. Slowing down that trend is in part dictated by the availability of health workers on the ground.
“There’s an extraordinary need for healthcare workers right now to come to West Africa and be part of this response,” said the head of the United States Agency for International Development Raj Shah to NPR this weekend.
“We think that that kind of a response is going to be really important in order to get ahead of the crisis and in order to ensure that more people who are at risk are getting some degree of medical care so that we can help turn this epidemic around.”
The need is reflected in appeals from the United States, the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and recently Partners in Health to recruit volunteers. They are not the only groups looking for people to head over to West Africa and help treat people infected with Ebola and help reduce its spread.
The Boston-based Partners in Health is an organization best known for its work in Haiti support health systems, not necessarily emergency response. It was a crucial player following the 2010 earthquake, but much of its operations are set up for the long term, unlike crisis oriented organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
Partners in Health plans to open up a pair of 50-bed Ebola treatment centers in both Liberia and Sierra Leone.The group is also supporting health clinics in the two countries by teaming up with another Boston-based health organization, Last Mile Health, in Liberia and the Wellbody Alliance in Sierra Leone.
“To do this right, we will depend on people who are willing to fight against this terrible crisis,” said Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer at Partners in Health, to Boston NPR station WBUR. “The reason we will need a lot of non-Liberians, non-Sierra Leoneans — these countries simply do not have enough doctors and nurses.”
On Friday, the World Health Organization said that at least 1,000 more health workers were needed in West Africa. That includes between 500 and 600 doctors.
“Our response is running short on nearly everything from personal protective equipment to bodybags, mobile laboratories and isolation wards,” said WHO director general, Dr Margaret Chan, to the press.
“But the thing we need most of all is people: healthcare workers. The right people, the right specialists – and specialists who are appropriately trained and know how to keep themselves safe – are most important for stopping the transmission of Ebola. Money and materials are important, but those alone cannot stop Ebola transmission.”
The lack of response may be due to the danger associated with working in an Ebola affected region. Foreign and local health workers who have been working with infected patients have caught the virus. Sunday saw two Dutch doctors evacuated from Sierra Leone over fears that they had caught Ebola. The weekend also saw the fourth doctor from Sierra Leone die from Ebola.
The WHO estimates that more than 300 health workers have been infected by Ebola since the outbreak. With half of them dying, the prospects of working in response and tempting death may be keeping health workers away. That is certainly keeping away some aid workers who have told Humanosphere that they turned down deployments in the three most affected countries over health concerns.
There is no sign of coordination between the appeal for volunteers right now, but that may soon change as the crisis continues.