WHO on Ebola outbreak: We need more health workers

Health workers responding to a confirmed Ebola outbreak in Guinea. Photo by: EC / ECHO / CC BY-ND

The World Health Organization desperately needs to boost the ranks of health workers responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to prevent or reduce incidents of them becoming infected, as has happened already with several doctors and at least one aid worker.

Aid groups are struggling to deal with the outbreak, which started in Guinea-Conakry and has now spread to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. Close to 700 confirmed and suspected deaths have been reported since February, including respected doctors Sheik Humarr Khan of Sierra Leone and Samuel Brisbane, who used to be former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s physician. Today, a U.S. doctor with Christian charity Samaritan Purse and a Serving In Mission aid worker are fighting for their lives after contracting the virus in Liberia.

"We really believe that the avoidance of transmission among health workers can be done by improving the quality of care and facilities that are delivering this care. Secondly, we need to increase the number of staff and let them work in shifts. In some affected countries, there are health workers working 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Francis Kasolo, coordinator of the regional coordination center for Ebola recently established by WHO in Conakry, told Devex in a phone conversation.

Kasolo, director of disease prevention and control cluster for the U.N. agency in Brazzaville, Congo, explained that health workers, "tired" and overwhelmed with the number of patients, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to contagion.

That’s why providing them with protective materials, improving the facilities being used in the response and providing them continuous training on infection prevention and control are all absolutely crucial to prevent more health workers from contracting the disease, he added.

WHO’s Ebola coordination hub, set up last week following a request from West African leaders, is now acting as sort of clearing house for understanding the current epidemic and will set out priorities for governments and responders in affected countries like Sierra Leone, where more than 500 cases have been reported.

The hub also hopes to attract funds from donors for those areas their partners think are most in need of interventions.

"We want to ensure support in all countries that are affected is the same, and that it is clear that those involved in the response are all going into one direction," Kasolo said. “From previous experience, we've been able to handle the epidemic without necessarily creating such platform.”

Samaritan Purse and SIM are withdrawing all non-essential staff from Liberia as a "precautionary step," while some health workers fearful of infection have left on their own, although the WHO official said the latter is only happening “to a limited degree."

"Most of the dedicated health workers are really doing a commendable job, dedicating their lives to working in very difficult conditions and caring for persons that have come down with Ebola. What we need to do is commend them for their bravery and their commitment for caring for the patients,” Kasolo noted.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.