The British vessel Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus arrives in Sierra Leone to help with the deadly Ebola outbreak in Freetown, Sierra Leone, yesterday.
MONROVIA: Health authorities called yesterday for renewed vigilance over the Ebola epidemic, urging caution over claims that the outbreak is retreating as the World Bank boosted the global response with $100m for health workers.
The warning follows an announcement by World Health Organization (WHO) that data from funeral directors and treatment centres indicated lower admission rates and burials in Liberia, the nation hit hardest by the killer virus.
But international aid agency Doctors Without Borders said the apparent slowdown could be due to sick people not being picked up because of a lack of ambulances and being omitted from the statistics. The medical charity, known by its French initials MSF, warned that “mandatory cremation of bodies and a poor ambulance and referral system could also be reasons for this decrease in admissions”.
“It is too soon to draw conclusions on the reduction of Ebola cases in Monrovia,” Fasil Tezera, MSF head of mission in Liberia, said in a statement.
WHO assistant director-general Bruce Aylward told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday that labs were also seeing a “plateauing or slight decline” in the number of confirmed cases — but warned that the crisis was far from over.
Liberia welcomed the possibility of a turning-point in the outbreak but echoed the call for caution issued by the WHO and MSF. Deputy health minister Tolbert Nyensuah said that even if it managed to achieve no new cases, Liberia would not be able to consider itself Ebola-free until neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone had eradicated the virus.
The outbreak has claimed 4,922 lives, according to the WHO, the vast majority in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The number of cases registered worldwide has soared to 13,703 — up from around 10,000 reported on Saturday — but the WHO has attributed the sharp rise to previously unreported cases being added to the statistics.
“The world’s response to the Ebola crisis has increased significantly in recent weeks, but we still have a huge gap in getting enough trained health workers to the areas with the highest infection rates,” said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, announcing the $100m donation.
“We must urgently find ways to break any barriers to the deployment of more health workers.”
The United Nations estimates that the three countries need another 5,000 international medical, training and support personnel in the coming months.
The epidemic has taken a huge toll on health workers in the region, with 272 deaths, most of them in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A US nurse who recently returned from Sierra Leone has vowed to fight the northeastern state of Maine, which has ordered her to stay at home in quarantine for the final 12 days of the virus’ incubation period.
Kaci Hickox defied the edict early Thursday by taking a bike ride with her boyfriend, watched by a scrum of television news reporters.
Meanwhile the virus continues to cause alarm as far away as China, which Ebola expert Peter Piot described as vulnerable to an outbreak due to the soaring number of Chinese working in Africa and poor infection control at home.
– Collapsed healthcare systems –
The Belgian microbiologist — a co-discoverer of Ebola — said experience showed that airport screening was largely ineffective and it was “not impossible” that a Chinese worker would return to Africa’s largest trading partner with the virus.
The Philippines has urged hundreds of its citizens to leave Ebola-hit west African nations, as it announced anyone who returned would be placed under a 21-day quarantine.
Further east, North Korea said it intended to quarantine all foreigners entering the country for 21 days, no matter what their country of origin.
While the outbreak is inspiring fear across the world, it is also devastating the response to other potentially deadly diseases in its west African epicentre, where healthcare systems are said to have “collapsed”.
MSF warned that Ebola had made obtaining treatment for malaria, which is endemic in Liberia, almost impossible in Monrovia, with the majority of general wards closed because staff are too afraid to work.
In the rare clinics remaining open, patients showing fever are sent straight to Ebola centres, the agency said.
“The first symptoms of malaria are the same as those of Ebola. They include fever, headache and overwhelming fatigue,” said Chibuzo Okonta, MSF’s deputy director of emergency programmes.
The agency said it had begun distributing anti-malarials to around 300,000 people in the city’s poorest, most densely-inhabited neighbourhoods.
“The objective is also to eliminate the risk that patients with fever, suspected of having Ebola, will end up in Ebola treatment centres in contact with infected persons,” Okanta added.
Malaria remains the leading cause of death in Liberia, with 1.7 million cases in 2012 according to the health ministry, 1,800 of them fatal.