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Dangers High for Health Workers on Ebola Front Lines

  • Anne Look

Volunteers lower a corpse, which is prepared with safe burial practices to ensure it does not pose a health risk to others and stop the chain of person-to-person transmission of Ebola, into a grave in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, July 18, 2014.

Volunteers lower a corpse, which is prepared with safe burial practices to ensure it does not pose a health risk to others and stop the chain of person-to-person transmission of Ebola, into a grave in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, July 18, 2014.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 900 people across four countries. That includes dozens of health workers who caught the disease, 32 in Liberia alone. Many of that country’s health clinics and hospitals have shut down as nurses and doctors refuse to risk being exposed.

Dr. Melvin Korkor said he has a pretty good idea how he got Ebola, though it’s impossible to know for sure.

A woman came into his facility, Phebe hospital in Bong County in central Liberia. The patient had no fever, but she was vomiting.

“She said she was from Bangha instead of Lofa, but the next day I was a little bit suspicious. I said 'Well, I hope you are not from Lofa because there is every indication that you are suspect.'”

Ebola virus, rapid rise in spread of the disease, Aug. 7, 2014

Ebola virus, rapid rise in spread of the disease, Aug. 7, 2014

They later found out the woman lied. She had come from Lofa, an area at the Sierra Leone and Guinea borders that is at the center of this regional Ebola outbreak.

Five nurses from Korkor’s hospital have since died of Ebola. When he tested positive, he was taken to Monrovia and then to Lofa to an isolation ward.

“One of the patients had just died. They prepared the bed and I went in… my heart became hardened, and I said to myself I was going to make it and I said to my wife 'bring me my Bible' and that is that, I’m going to go by,” said Korkor.

Pure survival

He forced himself to eat even though he did not want food. It was lonely. He tried to stay calm. He saw other patients growing despondent, hopeless and passing away.

He survived.

“It was like being reborn,” he said.

His hospital is now closed while health workers get trained on Ebola.

The virus is transmitted through close contact with an Ebola patient's bodily fluids. People caring for the sick are thus at especially high risk.

Many health workers in Liberia don’t have the necessary protective gear -- the masks, the gowns, the eyewear.

As a result, health centers and hospitals around Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, are shutting their doors. The risk that any patient coming in the doors could have Ebola is simply too great.

Lacking supplies

Nurse Timothy Walker said his clinic didn’t even have gloves.

“Our friends are dying. On a very serious note, we don’t want to die like a dog," said Walker. "[If] the government cannot provide protective gear, sorry, we are not coming to work. We are afraid.”

Local residents standing outside the shuttered clinic say they are in an impossible situation.

“Because if we sick, we cannot go to native doctor," said Reanking Logan. "We’re not familiar with native doctor. We’ve got to go to the clinic and all clinics are closed down. Pregnant women they need to go to clinic and they need medical facility. They don’t have it. So where we are today, we don’t know.”

Culture of fear

Health workers who continue to work say they are afraid and that people outside the clinic are afraid of them.

Physician’s assistant McFarland Kerkulah said, “Whenever you are in uniform, people will shy away from you on grounds that you have been infected with the Ebola virus. They don’t want to see you. They don’t want to ride in any car you are getting in.”

The dozens of health workers killed during this Ebola outbreak include some who have had access to protective gear. Public health experts say errors are happening. This is the first time most West African doctors and nurses have dealt with Ebola, and people are undertrained and overworked.

On Wednesday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency. She said not only does the country have more than 500 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola, but people are now also at risk of dying from treatable illnesses common during the rainy season, like malaria and typhoid, for lack of medical care.

Meamwhile,

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has activated its emergency operation center at the highest level, in response to the world's worst Ebola outbreak.

CDC chief Dr. Thomas Frieden told a congressional hearing on Ebola Thursday that the centers will soon have 50 disease experts in West Africa at the center of the crisis. He said he is confident no major outbreak in the U.S. will happen.

Prince Collins reported from Monrovia for this story.

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