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WHO pulls back as virus threatens health corps

Wednesday August 27th, 2014

The World Health Organisation pulled out of one of its bases in Sierra Leone yesterday after warning of the heavy toll paid by doctors and nurses working to tackle the Ebola virus.

WHO says more than 120 health care workers - including senior doctors - have died in the outbreak in west Africa.

And it has warned that international agencies are now struggling to recruit medical staff to work on the outbreak because of the high risks.

The problems are escalating amid reports that the outbreak has now reached the Democratic Republic of Congo.

WHO has now pulled its staff out of Kailahun, Sierra Leone, after one of them fell ill with the virus.

However an investigatory team has been sent to the town to find out how the worker became infected.

Dr Daniel Kertesz, from WHO, said: “This was the responsible thing to do. The field team has been through a traumatic time through this incident.

“They are exhausted from many weeks of heroic work, helping patients infected with Ebola. When you add a stressor like this, the risk of accidents increases.”

WHO said healthcare workers had proved vulnerable because the outbreak had spread beyond the areas where Ebola is endemic to large cities - requiring inexperienced staff to care for patients.

There have also been difficulties distinguishing infected patients with those suffering from diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever and Lassa fever.

It said in some cases workers did not have access to protective equipment whilst when they did have it, it was "hot and cumbersome." Long shifts could also lead to mistakes.

A spokesman said: "The heavy toll on health care workers in this outbreak has a number of consequences that further impede control efforts. It depletes one of the most vital assets during the control of any outbreak.

"WHO estimates that, in the three hardest-hit countries, only one to two doctors are available to treat 100,000 people, and these doctors are heavily concentrated in urban areas.

"It can lead to the closing of health facilities, especially when staff refuse to come to work, fearing for their lives. When hospitals close, other common and urgent medical needs, such as safe childbirth and treatment for malaria, are neglected.

"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? 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.

"The loss of so many doctors and nurses has made it difficult for WHO to secure support from sufficient numbers of foreign medical staff."

Medicins Sans Frontieres, which revealed the outbreak in the Congo, said it was not yet established it was linked to the west African outbreak.

* Nurse William Pooley is now being treated with the monoclonal antibody drug ZMapp at the Royal Free Hospital in London, it was reported.

Tags: Africa | Flu & Viruses | Pharmaceuticals | World Health

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