In Ebola-stricken West Africa, many of the sick ‘have nowhere to go’

BY Larisa Epatko  September 3, 2014 at 4:31 PM EST
A banner explains Ebola prevention measures and symptoms of the disease in Dolo's Town, east of Monrovia, Liberia in this Sept. 2 photo by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images.

A banner explains Ebola prevention measures and symptoms of the disease in Dolo’s Town, east of Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images.

Despite world health agencies’ best efforts to clamp down on ever-increasing Ebola outbreaks, people in West Africa who are in the center of the virus’ path are finding it hard to get accurate information and proper medical care, United Nations officials who recently visited the region said Wednesday.

Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the U.N.’s World Health Organization, said in a conference call that there are an estimated 3,500 confirmed Ebola cases mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. More than 40 percent of new cases occurred in the past 21 days.

“The outbreaks are racing ahead of the control efforts,” she said.

On Aug. 28, the World Health Organization released an updated Ebola strategy aimed at stopping the spread of the disease in the affected countries in six to nine months. The agency also is reviewing the most promising experimental therapies and vaccines later this week to add to the response plan, said Chan.

The bulk of Ebola infections occur when family members take care of each other, said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at WHO. There aren’t enough beds in treatment clinics, so the sick stay at home, he said. “Ill people have nowhere to go.”

Several thousand more workers are needed to care for patients in the hard-hit nations, along with additional vehicles to transport the sick and dead. “Bodies are not removed quickly enough” by health authorities, he said. “It is really upsetting” to the residents.

Chan said the World Health Organization is trying to recruit medical teams from other countries, but hasn’t found very many. “Without them, it is very difficult to mount a response in keeping with the situation,” she said.

Airlines are cancelling flights to the Ebola-stricken nations to protect against the spread of the disease, but it complicates getting the health care workers to the region, she added.

Meanwhile, quarantined communities are going hungry because not enough people are bringing them food, said Fukuda. They also crave more information about the devastating disease. Many know it’s unsafe to touch people who have died from Ebola or are sick, but they don’t know what to do beyond that, he said.

The United Nations is working with its partner organizations in the field, including Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to spread information about the causes and symptoms of Ebola, and encourage people to get treated early to increase their likelihood of survival, said Chan.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding, rumor and denial in communities that Ebola isn’t real and is something being given to them from the outside,” she said.

The United Nations also is working with the heads of the affected African governments to forge a coordinated response, but stigmatization of the disease and those who have it is making it difficult to implement, Chan said.

At least $600 million will be needed to help the governments get the situation under control, including paying for vehicles, medical supplies and salaries of health care workers, said Dr. David Nabarro, senior U.N. system coordinator for Ebola disease.

“We are not in a position where we can afford to lose a day, because this outbreak is currently moving ahead of efforts to control it,” he said.