Growing Ebola Outbreak Threatens to Overwhelm Volunteers

When a team from Tulane University sent a batch of protective clothing and equipment to help workers fighting an outbreak of Ebola virus in Sierra Leone last month, they were fairly confident the 300 or so packs would be enough for a good start.

They couldn’t have predicted what they would be up against.

The World Health Organization says 22 new cases of Ebola virus were reported in Sierra Leone between May 29th and June 5. WHO counts 81 cases with 6 deaths but Sierra Leone’s health ministry says it has a total of 95 confirmed and suspected cases.

“This is worse than expected. I am fearful that it could get much worse,” said Robert Garry, a virologist and specialist in viral hemorrhagic fevers at Tulane University. Garry flew to Kenema Government Hospital last month with as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as he could carry, but he says they are running out fast.

“We have to ration them,” he said.

Kenema Hospital is treating 11 patients with Ebola, all being kept in isolation. Six more have died. With each worker needing a complete change of gown, mask, gloves, goggle and other protective gear with each visit, that means supplies go fast.

At least 35 lab-confirmed Ebola cases have been traced to a traditional healer whose grieving patients apparently handled her body at her funeral and became infected themselves, Garry says.

The healer had treated patients just over the border in neighboring Guinea. This cross-border outbreak is worrying health officials because it’s spreading in an area where people cross from one country into another casually, passing through large cities on their travels.

Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses known. It kills quickly, taking anywhere between 50 percent and 90 percent of victims, depending on the strain.

The good news is it doesn’t spread terribly easily — it requires direct contact with bodily fluids. But caregivers and health care workers can become infected while caring for patients, and funeral rituals such as washing a body can expose more people.

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Dan Mullin is an active writer and editor for the Pluto Daily who covered the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Mullin attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine before leaving to pursue his lifelong science goal of allowing humans to live forever via a computer/brain transfer.