Fatigue and fear hit staff on the Ebola front line in West Africa

Medecins sans Frontieres rotates foreign staff, but locals don't have option

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 9:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 9:20pm

Doctors, nurses and hospital workers fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa are struggling with a daily burden of exhaustion, shortage of staff and fear for themselves over the deadly virus, specialists say.

Containing an outbreak by a lethal pathogen places big demands on workers in any health system, but this is especially the case in one of the world's poorest regions, they say.

Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who codiscovered the Ebola virus in 1976, said health workers faced "their own fear of this epidemic, a fear that is grounded in reality. They're the front line."

"They often don't have the resources, they see colleagues dying, so I'm not surprised that some hospitals have been abandoned, basically," he said in an interview in London.

"Some nurses in some hospitals have gone on strike because there isn't minimum basic equipment for protecting both the hospital workers and the patients and their relatives."

"The health workers are tired," said Jean-Claude Manuguerra, a professor at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who spent two weeks at a hospital in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, which is the epicentre of the scare.

"It's hard to recruit people and get them to come. Some aren't available, and there are the factors of fatigue and fear."

The epidemic has caused 1,200 cases and more than 670 deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with one case confirmed in Nigeria.

Piot said the number of cases in Guinea appeared to be in decline but was rising in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It had become "a national emergency" in those two countries.

Brigitte Vasset, deputy medical director at the French-based charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said tackling an Ebola outbreak required a large pool of personnel.

It was not just doctors and nurses who had to handle infected patients, she said.

Around half are people who take care of things such as logistics and cleaning and going to homes to trace relatives or friends of people who have fallen sick.

They, too, needed to be trained in infection risk, she said in a phone interview.

Foreign staff for MSF who were being sent to fight the epidemic were being rotated every three weeks "before they go beyond the point of exhaustion", she said.

"We can no longer respond to every outbreak," Vasset warned. "We just don't have the staff to train other people properly and ensure that they are not placed at risk. We need to have more people, more specialists."

Treating patients with Ebola means donning a full protective suit, mask, gloves and goggles, which according to medical guidelines are then checked by a fellow worker to ensure there are no gaps to expose the skin.

The outfit was being worn in searing tropical heat, in clinics where there was no air conditioning, Vasset said. "You can stand it for 40 minutes maximum, then have to be replaced."

Those who went to remote villages to try to trace people who had been in contact with patients, or to educate locals about the risks of contamination, may encounter hostility from inhabitants who suspected they were bringing the virus, said Mariano Lugli, coordinator of MSF's operations in Guinea. "We are being threatened if we go to certain villages," he said.