The U.N. health organization said Tuesday that it had temporarily withdrawn personnel from an Ebola testing laboratory in eastern Sierra Leone – one of only two in the country -- after an epidemiologist deployed to the area became infected with the deadly virus.
The announcement came amid growing concern about the high toll of the disease on health workers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.
More than 240 doctors, nurses and other health workers have been infected and at least 120 have died since the West African outbreak began in March, according to the World Health Organization. The disease has overwhelmed already stretched medical facilities, where staff did not have the protective equipment or training to respond.
More than 1,400 people have been killed in the outbreak, the deadliest on record. Officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo have also confirmed two Ebola deaths in their country, but say they are the result of a different strain of the virus than in West Africa.
The Senegalese epidemiologist was the first person deployed by WHO to be infected in West Africa, said Christy Feig, an agency spokeswoman. He is receiving treatment and will be evacuated from Sierra Leone in the coming days, she said.
Six remaining staff members and partners in Kailahun, near the border with Guinea, were withdrawn Monday pending an investigation, she said. WHO's representative in Sierra Leone, Dr. Daniel Kertesz, called it "the responsible thing to do."
"They are exhausted from many weeks of heroic work, helping patients infected with Ebola," he said in a statement. "When you add a stressor like this, the risk of accidents increases."
A WHO team arrived Tuesday in Kailahun to try to determine how the health worker became infected, review the living and working environment, and identify factors that could put others at risk.
Other health workers are waiting in Freetown to deploy to Kailahun when the investigation is complete, and appropriate action has been taken, Feig said. In the meantime, laboratory work will be performed at facilities in the eastern city of Kenema.
"We recognize that this will interrupt the work in the field for the short term, but it ensures we protect health workers and help the community over the longer term," Kertesz said.
Operations at an 80-bed Ebola care facility in Kailahun run by Doctors Without Borders were not affected by the decision, said Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for the medical charity. The center has provided care for 225 Ebola patients, including 63 who recovered, since it opened in late June, he said.
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