On July 29, 2014, the ongoing Ebola epidemic in west Africa was hit a hard blow when Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, a leading doctor who treated Ebola patients and national hero in Sierra Leone, died from the deadly virus. The outbreak, which began this spring, has now infected thousands and killed nearly 900 people across Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, including more than 90 healthcare workers who were treating victims. It’s the most widespread and deadliest yet, due to the relative ease of travel and an apparently new strain of the disease. (Read our previous blog about the outbreak.)
Because of the deadly and quick-spreading nature of the Ebola virus, many precautions are taken to protect healthcare workers from the disease. Says Marie-Christine Ferir, the Emergency Coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders, “As well as the personal protective equipment that our staff wears, we have a series of strict procedures and protocols. Our treatment centers are designed to ensure the safest possible working environment for our staff.” Adds Dr. Tom Frieden, the Director of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “We work actively to educate American health-care workers on how to isolate patients and how to protect themselves against infection.”
Yet workers are still getting sick – and dying. In an interview with Armand Sprecher, the medical advisor to Doctors Without Borders, he noted that, though the suits worn by healthcare workers when dealing with infected patients are impervious to fluid, procedures and protocols still have to be followed. For example, wearing or taking off the suit improperly can cause fluid transfer to the face, or hands, which then may touch the face. An accidental needle stick can also result in a transfer of fluids that can lead to infection.
Now people in other countries are concerned Ebola may spread further. In order to give stricken healthcare workers the best shot possible, they are generally returned to their home countries for treatment, raising concerns that their presence will allow the virus to take root there. An American doctor and nurse were returned to the United States for treatment on August 2nd and August 4th, respectively. Officials note that every precaution is being taken to isolate the patients and that Ebola can be spread only by bodily fluids, which requires very close contact.
Though there are no vaccines or currently approved treatment for Ebola, the infected American personnel received experimental treatment while still in Liberia. The treatment attempts to use antibodies produced by animals exposed to Ebola to help the immune system fight off the virus. Dr. Brantly received a blood transfusion from a boy who survived Ebola under his care (surviving Ebola appears to provide immunity against re-infection). Both vaccines and treatments are in development, but funding is difficult given the relative rarity of Ebola.
In the ongoing attempt to contain the spread of the virus, Sierra Leone has quarantined neighborhoods, cancelled public meetings and overseas trips, while Liberia has closed schools, most borders, and put state employees on leave. The CDC has issued a Level 3 Travel Warning to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization has launched a $100 million campaign with the aim of bringing the epidemic under control, partially by providing new doctors.
To view the impacts this disease is having on the public as well as healthcare professionals, the causes of these impacts and what is being done to reduce the risk of these impacts, please click on “Download PDF” above. Or read our previous blog to learn more about the outbreak.