The death toll from the deadly Ebola virus currently ravaging parts of West Africa is now approaching 1,000, and international health officials said that the state of the health care systems in the three countries where it has done the most damage – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – is such that the outbreak may go on for some time.
The World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international public health emergency late last week, and on Sunday, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director general of health security, told Bob Schieffer of CBS’s Face the Nation that more deaths are expected.
“We anticipate that there will continue to be cases, and if we continue to have cases, we will continue to have people dying from this disease,” said Fukuda. “This is a severe infection.”
Fukuda expressed the frustration that many public health officials are clearly suffering because of their inability to stop Ebola’s spread.
“This is definitely an outbreak that can be contained,” he said. “This is not a mysterious disease. It’s a severe disease, but we know we know how this virus is transmitted.”
It is well understood by the medical community that Ebola is only transmitted from person to person when the bodily fluids of an infected individual enter the system of a healthy person, either through the eyes, nose or mouth or through an open wound.
“What’s difficult in this situation is that we are dealing with countries with weak health systems and we are dealing with areas in which practice like good infection controls and prevention are not the norm in hospitals and families and communities,” Fukuda said.
The WHO is not supporting calls for a ban on travel and trade involving countries where the disease is prevalent, though infected people should not travel and anyone who has come in contact with an infected person should be quarantined for 21 days.
“It’s cleat that any person can travel anywhere in the world with an infection,” said Fukuda.
However, he added, “This in many ways is a poster child for what it means to have health systems that are weak. While it is possible for someone with an infection to travel to a number of countries, perhaps to Europe, perhaps to North America and the United States, and it is possible you might have a few cases associated with that. …it is very unlikely that you would have large outbreaks in the way that we’re seeing them in these countries right now.”
On ABC’s This Week, Dr. Frank Glover, Jr., medical missionary with Service in Mission (SIM), one of the groups fighting the virus on the ground in West Africa, said there is dire need for medical supplies and personnel. Earlier in the week, he testified before Congress and reported that 95 percent of foreign doctors had fled the countries where the disease is rampant.
“The health system [there] has completely collapsed,” he said. “They don’t have the capacity to even see patients. Every day they are seeing … mothers present with dead babies in their womb because there is no one there to do a C-section.”
Of the health care professionals who do remain, Glover said, dozens have contracted the disease themselves, in some cases because they do not have access to basic protective gear.
Meanwhile, Emory University Hospital in Atlanta continues to treat the two American Ebola patients who were flown to this country recently for care. Dr. Kent Brantly released a statement on Friday from his isolation unit, saying in part, “I am growing stronger every day, and I thank God for His mercy as I wrestled with this terrible disease.” Brantly had been working for a humanitarian organization in West Africa and was treating Ebola patients when he contracted the virus. The other American being treated at Emory, Nancy Writebol, was also infected while working for a mission group.
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