Poverty, Disease Outbreak, Infectious Diseases, Healthcare Workforce

Challenges on the Frontlines of Ebola

~Written by Marilyn Perez Alemu (Contact: marilyn.perez@gmail.com

Healthcare workers on the frontlines of the Ebola crisis in West Africa are daily putting their lives at risk to save the lives of others. The current epidemic is the largest of its kind in history, exacerbated by a reported 70% case fatality rate. Yet Ebola is a disease that knows no mercy. Since the initial outbreak reported in March, more than 450 healthcare workers have been infected in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. More than 200 have died.

Despite being faced daily with this reality, as well as the looming stigmatization from their communities and families, healthcare workers continue to provide medical support to Ebola victims for the sake of those who will survive the disease. The initial international response was markedly slow and, as the outbreak intensifies, emerging challenges have severely impacted the ability of healthcare workers to respond to the growing need.

When executed properly, contact tracing is a key method for containing the outbreak spread. Ideally each contact, or person linked to a confirmed or probable case, would be identified by a healthcare worker and monitored for 21 days following exposure, allowing public health officials to track the movement of the outbreak. In theory, contact tracing is an effective method to ensure early detection of infections and immediate treatment, and stem the spread of the virus. Essentially, contact tracing has been called the key to “stop Ebola in its tracks”. And while the process seems simple enough, critical information gaps, limited databases, and an exponential increase in the number of Ebola cases have led to a breakdown in contact tracing in West Africa. With limited infrastructure and many living in remote villages, even finding patients is a challenge. Add that to the fact that people are often uncooperative with tracers, as the fear of going to a health center is something akin to a death sentence. Without the ability to do complete and proper contact tracing, rapid diagnosis and patient isolation is hindered and the outbreak will continue to spiral out of control.

While past outbreaks of Ebola were sporadic and contained within small rural areas, the current outbreak poses a serious challenge in that it has spread quickly to more crowded urban areas in West Africa. In rural areas, population density is lower, community ties are stronger, and transmission prevention measures are presumably easier to implement. Now, in vastly overpopulated urban areas, Ebola transmission has accelerated exponentially and the outbreak has gone beyond the ability to contain it. Control and prevention measures have thus intensified in both innovation and urgency, evidenced by accelerated efforts in vaccine development and experimental therapeutics.

While an Ebola outbreak is caused biologically, an Ebola epidemic is a crisis of poverty and fragile health systems. West Africa is faced with the repercussions of a weak health infrastructure, including scarcity of healthcare workers, limited resources, and poor management systems. It should be noted that these shortcomings preceded the Ebola outbreak, with just 51 doctors to serve Liberia’s 4.2 million people and 136 for Sierra Leone’s population of 6 million. To put this in context, this is fewer than many clinical units in a single hospital in the United States. Having worked its way through the cracks of a fragile health infrastructure, Ebola has effectively brought healthcare to a halt in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. An added complication is the shortage of resources, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and other control materials, and the lack of straightforward protocols and guidelines. Efforts must increase not only to ensure an ample supply of optimal PPE but also to effectively disseminate information on proper use of the equipment.

At the frontlines of the Ebola outbreak, healthcare workers face a daunting challenge. In Liberia, Emmanuel Boyah, a primary health manager with the International Rescue Committee, recounts the stress and fear of this work. Yet he and many others continue to dedicate themselves to the cause and risk their lives to care for those affected: “I feel that providing services to people during this time, when they’re in need of you, is my call.”