Ebola outbreak: Clinics still short on doctors, supplies 6 months later

Doctors are in short supply. So are beds for patients. Six months after the Ebola outbreak emerged for the first time in an unprepared West Africa and eventually became the worst-ever outbreak, the gap between what has been sent by other countries and private groups and what is needed is huge.

Bulk of promised global aid has yet to materialize on the ground

Ebola clinics like this one in Kenema, Sierra Leone, have been packed with patients and are short on medical supplies and personnel. The bulk of the aid Western nations have promised to help West African countries contain the epidemic has not yet materialized even though it has been six months since the outbreak of the vitus began. (Youssouf Bah/Associated Press)

Doctors are in short supply. So are beds for patients. Six months after the Ebola outbreak emerged for the first time in an unprepared West Africa and eventually became the worst-ever outbreak, the gap between what has been sent by other countries and private groups and what is needed is huge.

Even as countries try to marshal more resources, those needs threaten to become much greater, and possibly even insurmountable.

We tried calling an ambulance days ago, but nobody ever came.- Mother of Liberian child ill with Ebola

Fourteen-year-old D.J. Mulbah was taken by his mother and grandmother on Saturday in desperate pursuit of a coveted bed at the Ebola clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. Too weak to stand, he was put into a taxi with his backpack and a bucket for vomit. Now he lay on the dirt beside the worried women.

"He's been sick for a week with a runny stomach," said his mother, wiping the sweat off the boy's brow with her bare hands. "We tried calling an ambulance days ago, but nobody ever came."

Beds are filling up as fast as clinics can be built. Ambulance sirens blare through standstill traffic. Often, there is nowhere to take the sick except to "holding centres" where they await a bed at an Ebola treatment facility.

The virus has killed almost 3,000 people and infected more than 6,200 in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal.

Global response inadequate

By 8 a.m., a dozen people who likely have Ebola are crouching and sitting on the ground outside the padlocked metal gates of a facility with a capacity of 160 patients. Soon, a triage nurse approaches, her voice muffled through a surgical mask covered by a plastic face shield. The clinic will take the boy. D.J. manages a faint smile. Seven of the 30 beds made available Saturday morning were vacated by survivors. The rest had died.

Statistics reviewed by The Associated Press and interviews with experts and those on the scene of one of the worst health disasters in modern history show how great the needs are and how little the world has done in response. Some foreign medical workers have bravely fought on, a few even contracting Ebola themselves as they cared for patients.

Liberia needs more than one million protective suits and other gear such as gloves and boots in order to properly fight the epidemic. (Abbas Dulleh/Associated Press)
Experts warn that the window of opportunity to snuff out the dreaded disease may close unless promises of additional assistance immediately become reality.

The existing bed capacity for Ebola patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria is about 820, well short of the 2,900 beds that are currently needed, according to the World Health Organization. Recently, 737 beds were pledged by countries. Yet even after the promised treatment facilities are built, they will still be at least 2,100 beds short.

The shortage of health workers is also great. The WHO has estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 international health workers are needed in West Africa. More than 200 local health workers have died of Ebola trying to save patients, complicating recruitment efforts.

Doctors Without Borders, which has more Ebola clinics than anyone, currently has 248 foreign aid workers in the region.

On Saturday, Liberia's chief medical officer, Bernice Dahn, placed herself under quarantine after her assistant died of Ebola.

CBC reporter Adrienne Arsenault and producer Stephanie Jenzer arrived in Liberia this weekend and will be sending regular reports from the field. Follow their updates at @adriearsenault and @steph.jenzer.

U.S. to train medical staff, build field hospitals

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered up to 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa to train health workers and build more than a dozen 100-bed field hospitals, including reserved sections for infected aid workers in Liberia.

Among other promises of global assistance:

  • The African Union has said it will deploy 100 health workers to assist the West African countries affected by Ebola. The first batch of an AU Ebola taskforce, totaling 30 people, left for Liberia on Sept. 18. Taskforce members are expected to arrive in Sierra Leone on Oct. 5 and in Guinea by the end of October.
  • Britain and France have both pledged to build field hospitals in Sierra Leone and Guinea.
  • China is sending a 59-person lab team to Sierra Leone.
  • Cuba will send 461 health workers, who will be trained in biosecurity, and some will go to Liberia and Guinea.
  • Canada promised an additional $30 million in aid last week to go to prevention and treatment efforts.

Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, urged world leaders this week to take "immediate action."

"The reality on the ground today is this: The promised surge has not yet delivered," she said.

MSF and other aid workers are distributing home-care kits with gloves and surgical gowns to try and keep those awaiting hospital beds from infecting relatives at home, though only several thousand kits are being distributed in Monrovia, a city of 1.6 million.

"We have been working furiously trying to set up treatment centres, but (incoming patients) have been outpacing our ability to set them up," said Dr. Frank Mahoney, co-lead of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control team in Liberia.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Healthsaid Sunday it is preparing to care for an American doctor who was exposed to the Ebola virus while volunteering in Sierra Leone.

Out of what the agency called "an abundance of caution," the physician is expected to be admitted to the special isolation unit at the NIH's hospital near the nation's capital for observation. No other details were divulged.

Outbreak will get harder to contain

Unless the situation is put under control, the outbreak may infect as many as 1.4 million people by the end of the year and nearly half of those people could die, the CDC estimated this week. More than 3,000 are currently believed to have died from Ebola, which is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of the sick.

If more people get sick than those who recover or die, the needs will grow even more pronounced.

"If this outbreak continues, the sheer caseload will make it much more difficult to contain," said Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant-director general in charge of emergencies at WHO. "We will need more health workers to take care of them, more PPE (protective suits), more hospitals, more of everything."

A top priority is sending enough protective equipment, including gloves, gowns, masks and boots. WHO is shipping about 240,000 protective suits a month in addition to supplies sent by other agencies. Under-sourced clinics are reportedly washing and reusing protective gear that is meant to be worn once and burned.

Bernice Dahn, Liberia's chief medical officer, placed herself under quarantine on Saturday after her assistant died of Ebola. Liberia's government has asked people to keep themselves isolated for 21 days if they think they have been exposed. (James Giahyue/Reuters)

"We still do have gaps in the supply, which are quite significant," said Antonio Vigilante, the deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general in Liberia. "Nobody expected that the requirements of protective gear would go in the order of millions." Liberia now requires an estimated 1.3 million protective suits, Vigilante said.

One of the world's top makers of the suits, DuPont, says it has more than doubled production but would not say who has placed orders. Officials are also looking into whether protective clothing can be locally produced.

"The situation on the ground is just disastrous," said Dr. Heinz Feldmann, chief of virology at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who recently returned from Liberia.

"The idea of having hundreds of people in tent structures for Ebola management is unbelievable but the way this is spreading, we need to find a solution now."


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