The high proportion of nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers infected during the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is “unprecedented”, the World Health Organization has said.
To date, more than 240 health care workers have developed the disease in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone – and more than 120 have died, the WHO said in a statement.
The warning comes as a volunteer nurse from the UK is being treated for Ebola. William Pooley, Britain’s first confirmed Ebola case, contracted the virus while working in Sierra Leone.
The 29-year-old was flown back to the UK at the weekend for emergency treatment in an isolation unit at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust in Hampstead.
The WHO attributed the high proportion of infected clinical staff to shortages of protective equipment, too few staff for such a large outbreak, and the compassion that caused them to work in isolation wards far beyond the number of hours recommended as safe.
In the past, some Ebola outbreaks became visible only after transmission was amplified in a healthcare setting and many of the most recent outbreaks have occurred in remote areas.
The current outbreak is different, as it has affected cities too – vastly increasing opportunities for undiagnosed cases to have contact with hospital staff, said the WHO.
Several infectious diseases endemic in the region, like malaria, mimic the initial symptoms of Ebola virus disease, meaning doctors and nurses may see no need to take protective measures, it said.
Some documented infections have occurred when unprotected clinicians followed their instincts and rushed to aid a waiting patient who was visibly very ill, it added.
In many cases, staff are at risk because no protective equipment is available – not even gloves and masks. Even in dedicated Ebola wards, protective equipment is often scarce or not properly used.
In addition, personal protective equipment is hot and cumbersome, and severely limits the time doctors and nurses can work in an isolation ward. Some work beyond their physical limits, trying to save lives in 12-hour shifts, every day of the week – making them more prone to make mistakes.
The loss of so many doctors and nurses has made it difficult for WHO to secure support from sufficient numbers of foreign medical staff, it said.