Doctors Without Borders Warns Ebola Is Winning

September 29, 2014
Davy James, Associate Editor

The current Ebola epidemic is causing the health care system in West Africa to collapse.

Despite an increased response to the Ebola epidemic by the international community, a relief group has cautioned that the virus is winning the battle, as it continues to deteriorate the health care system in West Africa.

In her address to the United Nations last week, Doctors Without Borders International President Joanne Liu applauded the pledges of aid from various countries, but said the promised surge has not yet been delivered.

“The sick are desperate, their families and caregivers are angry, and aid workers are exhausted. Maintaining quality of care is an extreme challenge,” Liu said in her speech. “Fear and panic have set in, as infection rates double every 3 weeks. Mounting numbers are dying of other diseases, like malaria, because health systems have collapsed. Without you, we fall further behind the epidemic’s deadly trajectory. Today, Ebola is winning.”

The World Health Organization has estimated that, as of today, the current Ebola outbreak has killed more than 3000 people, with more than 6500 confirmed and suspected cases. Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a dire predictive model that projected Ebola could potentially infect up to 1.4 million people in Sierra Leone and Liberia by January 2015 without ramped-up containment efforts or changes in community behavior.

Relief efforts have begun to pour in from a number of sources, including 3000 military personnel whom the United States committed to send to the afflicted region.

The risks that these relief workers face was underscored Sunday when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the arrival of an American physician who was exposed to Ebola after volunteering in a treatment unit in Sierra Leone. Although no additional details about the patient were immediately available, the NIH said the patient is in a high-level isolation facility staffed by infectious disease and critical care specialists.

The loss of health care workers presents an ongoing issue for the region, as the International Crisis Group described last week the threat that the continued spread of the virus poses to Africa. The group warned that the epidemic could eventually cause the collapse of entire countries, leading the region to become a hazard to international peace and security.

The additional aid from other countries is vital to stopping Ebola, due to the issues that overtaxed health care workers currently face with a dearth of resources.

“What’s happening is the general collapse of the health care system because physicians and nurses and other health workers are staying home,” said Partners In Health Chief Medical Officer Joia Mukherjee, MD, in an interview with WBUR. “They feel unprotected and unprepared to deal with this—and they are.”

Until relief workers have the proper equipment, Dr. Mukherjee noted, they will continue to fear for their own safety on the front lines of the ever-worsening epidemic.

“I think many of us physicians, nurses, we take an oath, we’re very serious about our commitment to patients and to really care for them,” Dr. Mukherjee said in the interview. “But, if you’re not properly protected and someone is very sick with Ebola—particularly if they’re vomiting or they’re in the later stages where we know the excretion and the shedding of virus is very high—it is an extremely dangerous situation for the health care worker.”