DECATUR, Georgia — The deadliest wave of Ebola the world has ever seen has infected yet another individual: Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Sierra Leone’s chief Ebola doctor. Dr. Khan has been hard at work over the past few months treating over a hundred Ebola patients in Sierra Leone; now, he is being treated himself in an isolation unit in Kailahun, a small city in one of the country’s eastern districts and where most of Sierra Leone’s Ebola cases have been concentrated.
Dr. Khan is very well-respected within Sierra Leone for his continued efforts to rid its people of not just Ebola, but also of other diseases that have threatened its population. Outbreaks of Lassa fever have been the subject of Dr. Khan’s attention for the previous several years. Because the symptoms of Lassa fever are very similar to those of Ebola, Dr. Khan was able to seamlessly switch his focus to that virus when it became clear that this particular outbreak was severe.
According to the World Health Organization, Ebola has claimed over 600 lives since the outbreak began in March. Among the dead are several nurses and other healthcare workers employed in hospitals where Ebola patients were being treated. As a result of these deaths, some healthcare workers are going on strike to protest the less-than-adequate protection practices in place at their hospitals.
Other workers are finding it difficult to treat patients for fear of contracting Ebola themselves. That Dr. Khan, who was notoriously careful to shield himself from illness by wearing special protective clothing, has caught the virus is sure to stir up even more fear among healthcare workers.
Losing healthcare workers is not the only concern of these West African hospitals, though. Because of the ongoing outbreak, many healthcare centers that were already somewhat lacking in infrastructure and supplies are even further taxed as they struggle to treat the more than 1,000 individuals that have been directly affected by Ebola. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – the three countries in which the outbreak is contained – are some of the poorest in the world; accordingly, much of their healthcare systems are not equipped to deal with such a severe outbreak.
The strain of Ebola circulating throughout West Africa kills 60 percent of those who become infected with it and while there is no cure for the virus, patients are more likely to survive if they begin treatment prior to (in the case of a positive test) or soon after the onset of symptoms. Those in Sierra Leone and around the world are hoping for the recovery of Dr. Khan, who Miatta Kargbo, the country’s health minister, calls a “national hero.”
– Elise Riley