Limitations in available staff and protective equipment put medical personnel at increased risk.
The World Health Organization (WHO) expressed concern over what it calls an “unprecedented” number of health care workers who have been infected by the Ebola virus in West Africa.
To date, the most recent outbreak has caused more than 1400 fatalities with more than 2600 confirmed and suspected cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those infected are more than 240 health care workers who contracted the disease in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.
More than 120 of those health care workers have died from the disease, according to the WHO. Among those deaths were possibly 5 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, according to the International Pharmaceutical Federation.
“Ebola has taken the lives of prominent doctors in Sierra Leone and Liberia, depriving these countries not only of experienced and dedicated medical care but also of inspiring national heroes,” the WHO said in a press release.
Most recently, Dr. Abraham Borbor, deputy chief medical doctor for Liberia’s largest hospital, died from the virus on Monday.
The organization attributed the high numbers of infected health care workers to a number of factors, including the improper use and/or shortage of personal protective equipment, a limited number of medical staff trying to handle a large patient population, and compassion-driven work in isolation wards far beyond the number of safe recommended hours.
Beyond instances where gloves and facemasks are unavailable, WHO said that proper training for the use of protective equipment is essential, in addition to strict procedures for prevention and control. Due to a tropical climate exacerbating the heat and general difficulty of wearing protective equipment, the time health care workers can spend in an isolation ward is extremely limited.
Even with these limitations, many doctors are working 12-hour daily shifts, making them more prone to mistakes resulting from exhaustion.
WHO noted that past Ebola outbreaks only became visible after doctors and nurses in the health care setting became ill. Once the outbreak was identified, protective measures were enacted and the number of infected medical workers dropped dramatically.
Additionally, Ebola outbreaks recently occurred in remote areas of Africa that are more accustomed to the threat of the disease, with traceable transmission chains that were easier to break.
“The current outbreak is different. Capital cities as well as remote rural areas are affected, vastly increasing opportunities for undiagnosed cases to have contact with hospital staff,” the WHO stated. “Neither doctors nor the public are familiar with the disease. Intense fear rules entire villages and cities.”
The attrition rate among health care workers has led to a number of dire consequences for the containment of the outbreak. In the most affected regions, there are only 1 to 2 available doctors to treat 100,000 people, according to the WHO.
“The fact that so many medical staff have developed the disease increases the level of anxiety: if doctors and nurses are getting infected, what chance does the general public have?” the agency stated. “In some areas, hospitals are regarded as incubators of infection and are shunned by patients with any kind of ailment, again reducing access to general health care.”