The Ebola Battle Goes On
Unless immediate action is taken in West African countries hit by the Ebola outbreak – including isolating patients, using an effective quarantine programme and providing protective gear for health workers and those who bury the bodies of the dead – the death toll will likely reach into the thousands, according to Dr Frank Glover, who partners with SIM in Liberia. Whole families are getting infected and dying, in part, because there are simply no health facilities where they live. A lack of understanding of cultural practices that help spread the virus also contributes, such as families washing bodies of the dead.
Head of the World Health Organisation, Margaret Chan, says that “countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own.” Dr Glover explains, “This Ebola outbreak has exposed Liberia’s inherently weak health system. Less than 200 doctors existed in this country of four million people prior to this epidemic.” After the outbreak started, that number plummeted to only 50, as 98% of expatriate doctors made a hasty departure.
ELWA Hospital, founded by SIM in Liberia’s capital Monrovia in 1965, has been looking after Ebola patients since the epidemic started in March. ELWA still has the only properly equipped isolation unit in Liberia. SIM/ELWA staff are serving faithfully under intense circumstances, and they praise God that the organisation MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has brought in fresh doctors and medical workers. Together with the Liberian Ministry of Health they are running the Liberian Case Management Centre in the hospital, while ELWA provides logistics, security guards and runs the generators with help from Samaritan’s Purse funds.
Locally, people are fearful because many clinics and hospitals have shut down; the crisis has caused trauma and anxiety, leading to increased physical, emotional, and psychological problems in addition to Ebola deaths. (This is occurring against the backdrop of a long civil war which is fresh in peoples’ memories.) Messages about Ebola are being broadcast daily on ELWA Radio, encouraging the people to follow health and sanitation guidelines; local pastors of SIM’s partner church, ECL (Evangelical Church of Liberia) are also raising awareness.
A tiny shipment of the experimental drug ZMapp used to treat SIM missionary Nancy Writebol and her colleague Dr Kent Brantly, has been rushed to Liberia, but there’s only enough of it to treat a few sick local doctors.
But even without officially proven vaccines and treatment drugs, we know how to stop Ebola. Dr Tom Frieden, Director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, says the bottom line is, “find patients, isolate and care for them, find their contacts, educate people, and strictly follow infection control in hospitals. Do those things with meticulous care and Ebola goes away.”
Meanwhile, this outbreak is moving faster than the World Heath Organisation can control it. In the past week doctors on the ground say they see back-to-back surges in patient numbers. Kenya is the latest country said to be at risk. Last week, even though sick people were waiting outside, ELWA had to turn away new patients because the isolation unit was full. The situation is very fluid and changes from day to day.
“As a mission, we serve in many places and situations which may be considered ‘high risk’,” SIM International Director Joshua Bogunjoko writes. “On the threshold of such places, prepared as thoroughly as we can be in human terms, we pause, we join hands, and we pray in the power of Christ. Although a virus brings grief and panic, we live in a stronghold and refuge of the Lord. The joy of the Lord is our strength, and the compassion of the Lord is our constant comfort.”
As Mrs Writebol and Dr Brantly gradually recover in an Atlanta hospital, and a small number of recovered patients are being discharged from ELWA, health leaders are already looking to the future. Dr Glover says, “We must begin investing in healthcare systems, strengthening as we prepare to deal with future outbreaks.” There’s a role not only for more doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, but also community health educators. The need for dedicated SIM personnel is on-going.
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