The Ebola epidemic in Western Africa is spinning out of control, and the World Health Organization is getting worried. The WHO’s Director General Margaret Chan told a summit, including the leaders of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, that the virus was moving faster than the world’s efforts to control it thus far. A striking fact is buried in her remarks:
In addition, the outbreak is affecting a large number of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers, one of the most essential resources for containing an outbreak. To date, more than 60 health care workers have lost their lives in helping others. Some international staff are infected. These tragic infections and deaths significantly erode response capacity.
That’s more than 60 dead health workers out of more than 600 dead so far—around one in ten, a jarring figure.Health workers are of course orders of magnitude more likely to contract the virus, given their close proximity to the victims. The virus, Dr. Chan carefully notes, is not transmitted by air but by contact with blood, urine, saliva, and other bodily fluids of the infected—even after the victim has died. One would assume that many of the health workers who have succumbed did not have proper training for dealing with Ebola, and were operating under the constraints of West Africa’s severely inadequate health infrastructure.Nevertheless, statistics like these, coupled with stories of patients being spirited out of quarantine by terrified family members, and infected doctors having diarrhea aboard airplanes before finally succumbing to the disease, lend this whole story the distinctive aura of a disaster movie in its first thirty minutes. Let us hope that what happens next does not play out as scripted.