CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The hospital in Liberia where three American aid workers got sick with Ebola has been overwhelmed by a surge in patients and doesn’t have enough hazard suits and other supplies to keep doctors and nurses safe, a missionary couple told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The latest infection – of Dr. Rick Sacra, an obstetrician who wasn’t even working in the hospital’s Ebola unit – shows just how critical protective gear is to containing the deadly epidemic, and how charities alone can’t handle the response, they said.
Nancy Writebol and her husband David called for reinforcements during the AP interview, which followed her first news conference since recovering from Ebola disease. They work for North Carolina-based SIM, the charity that runs the ELWA hospital in Monrovia, Liberia.
About 250 staffers at the hospital use thousands of disposable protective suits each week, but that’s not enough to fully protect the doctors and nurses who must screen people entering the emergency room or treat patients outside the 50-bed Ebola isolation unit, they said.
We don’t have enough personal protective safety equipment to adequately be able to safely diagnose if a patient has Ebola. So they are putting themselves at risk, David Writebol said.
Sacra, a Boston-area obstetrician and veteran of many tours in Africa, felt compelled to return to Liberia about a month ago despite these challenges. As soon as he heard that Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were sick, Sacra called and said I’m ready to go, SIM President Bruce Johnson said.
Sacra’s job was to deliver babies at the hospital and take care of patients who were not infected with Ebola. He followed all the protocols to protect himself, said Will Elthick, the group’s operations director in Liberia.
But Sacra got infected nonetheless by the virus that has killed more than 1,900 people and sickened 3,500 in five West African nations.
The disease is spreading faster than the response in part for lack of protective gear, said Tom Kenyon of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least $600 million is urgently needed to provide these tools and extra hazard pay so that more doctors and nurses are willing to risk their lives, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.
Health care workers at other West African hospitals have gone on strike demanding more protections, the Writebols said.
They see colleagues who have fallen. They don’t want that to happen to them. But they are saying, I can’t go to work safely until there is personal protective equipment available – the right gear, the right procedures in place.’ And then, if they don’t go to work, are they going to get paid? David Writebol said.
The Writebols are veteran missionaries in Africa; David helped with the hospital’s technology while Nancy helped dress and disinfect people entering and leaving the Ebola unit. They say the challenges are far bigger than what any one hospital can handle alone.
The numbers of patients are surging, and finding food and supplies is more costly and difficult since airlines stopped serving the country.