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World & Nation

In West Africa, an overwhelming fight to prevent Ebola deaths

Ebola in Liberia
A woman cries over the death of her husband, a victim of the Ebola virus in Monrovia, Liberia.
(Zoom Dosso / AFP/Getty Images)

The only Ebola treatment center in central Liberia, which opened Monday, came too late for its first patient, a 12-year-old boy.

The boy’s mother died of Ebola a week ago. His father, also sick with Ebola, is being treated in isolation in the new 70-bed center in Suakoko town, run by the California-based charity International Medical Corps.

The organization’s ambulance team had counseled the father on treatment for him and his son.

The child was weak, but had managed to walk to the ambulance and climb inside. By the time he arrived at the treatment center from the family’s home an hour and a half away he had to be carried inside. He groaned in pain, clutching his stomach, through the admission procedure.

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Then he was carried to his bed in the isolation ward. Five minutes later, late on Monday, the boy died.

For a brief time his 45-year-old father was the only patient in the brand-new center, located in a facility provided by the aid group Save the Children. The center is part of an international response to Ebola in West Africa that many health officials say has fallen disastrously short. Angry Liberians and international aid workers ask why it has taken so many months for a serious global commitment to a health crisis that began early this year in Guinea.

The number of people being infected far outstrips the increase in the number of beds for treatment, even though more than half the patients receive care for only a few days before dying.

The World Health Organization on Tuesday warned that the numbers of new cases “may be approaching an exponential growth rate and could be doubling every three weeks,” and that it may cost $1 billion to bring the epidemic under control. WHO officials estimate the outbreak has killed more than 2,400 people out of nearly 5,000 suspected and confirmed cases.

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Last month the World Health Organization called for 800 beds in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, or five treatment centers. By last week, 12 centers were needed in Liberia, and now 17 centers are required to deal with the massive shortfall as new cases appear daily.

In response to criticism that the U.S. and other countries were slow to address the outbreak, President Obama planned to send 3,000 military personnel to the region to support the struggling local health systems, including creating more treatment centers.

Many experts believe the death toll is much higher than the WHO figures indicate, with many people dying outside treatment centers in the most seriously affected countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

“We are so far behind,” Sean Casey of the International Medical Corps in Suakoko said in a phone interview Tuesday, referring to the global response to the disease. “We should have 1,000 beds this week to meet the need. Every week, we are losing ground; the numbers are increasing so fast.”

At the outset of the crisis, a major problem was that people with Ebola were afraid to seek treatment. Now, those brave enough to try to get into isolation wards often are turned away.

“Right now, they drive around in taxis looking for a bed. There are ambulances and taxis with patients queuing up outside hospitals in Monrovia or there are patients getting dropped off, who just stay there waiting for a bed. Or they stay at home,” Casey said.

The sicker the patients, the more dangerous they are to others, especially family members caring for them. Taxi drivers are also at particular risk, Casey said.

“Right now, we are not keeping up and until we catch up there’s going to be a need for more beds and more treatment units,” he said.

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“We are not keeping up in terms of the training of medical staff who are needed and the number of Ebola treatment units,” he said. “I think there’s a sense that this crisis is worsening and of inadequate responses so far. There’s clearly concern that we’re not doing enough yet.”

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said, “We need enough capacity to have at any given time the majority of people with the Ebola virus to be in facilities being treated, and not to be outside.”

Jasarevic said it took the global community a long time to respond because “this is something we have never seen before. No one was really expecting that people would carry the virus to different parts of these three countries and that it would get to a capital.

“This time, the transmission chains were multiplying and we didn’t have enough people to do contact tracing and to do proper burials,” he said, referring to key parts of epidemic control, including the tracing of all people who were in contact with someone who was sickened or died from Ebola. “There were people whose contacts weren’t traced, or just disappeared, and they were out in the community, infecting people.”

In March, Doctors Without Borders warned that the outbreak was “unprecedented.” By July, the organization said it was “out of control.”

Brice de le Vingne, the organization’s director of operations, said last month that the lack of global involvement was “simply unacceptable,” questioning why powerful countries didn’t step in sooner to help.

For news from Africa, follow @RobynDixon_LAT.


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