Panicked and shocked Liberian health workers who have seen their colleagues die of Ebola, which has killed more than 500 people in West Africa since January, are abandoning their work stations, hoping to resume only when the disease subsides.
Their frustrations have been compounded by the lack of adequate medical equipment. Those who remain at work face a heavier workload. The authorities say they are conducting training and supplying equipment to bolster Ebola control.
“We have many challenges at this local health centre,” said McFarland Kerkulah, a doctor at Dolo health centre in Margibi County, some 50km northwest of the capital Monrovia. “We lack gloves, goggles, chlorine and other disinfectant materials. There is nothing that has been put in place by the government.”
“We are just managing by the grace of God. We are very scared because if you tell us to fight Ebola or prevent it, what materials do we use? None of us has been trained to fight the disease,” Kerkulah told IRIN.
Ebola had killed 539 people and infected 888 in Liberia and in neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone by 10 July, according to World Health Organization (WHO). Ebola’s spread is mainly being driven by some cultural practices among rural communities such as burial rituals, high population density around the capitals of the three West African countries, as well as cross-border movement, WHO said.
At least five major hospitals and health centres in Monrovia have reported a decline in manpower, but Tolbert Nyenswah, the assistant health minister for preventive services, said they were working to return to full service.
“The stay-away is affecting other ill people. They need to return to work. Things are getting better with the education and training we are providing. This will make them return. We understand their fears, but they need to come back to work.”
A nurse at Redemption Hospital, a referral hospital in Monrovia, said: “I am afraid to die. Our friends died and their families did not receive any compensation from the government. It means that if I die too that will be the end. I am very scared and have decided to stay home.” The hospital recently lost a nurse and a doctor to Ebola.
“To be frank, I am actually scared. I am a father of six and I don’t want to die and leave my children behind now. And so I have decided to stay at home with the family for now. When things improve, I will get back to my job,” said a laboratory technician who also spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.
Larry King, head of Mamba Karba Health Centre on the outskirts of the capital, said nine of the centre’s 25 staff have stayed away.
“The workload here is heavy. My workers have refused to come to work since they heard the news of the death of some of their fellow nurses. This is causing a serious hindrance to the operation of the centre. There are more patients coming in with other illnesses but the manpower is low. I hope the nurses can see the reason to come back to work,” he said.
The Health Ministry says it is carrying out training and providing supplies to health centres in a bid to calm fears and boost control of the incurable disease. In Liberia, 88 people have died of Ebola and there are 142 confirmed, probable or suspected cases, according to WHO. Some 200 health centres have received training out of a total target of 500, said Nyenswah.
“The problem the health workers were faced with was the lack of training and lack of knowledge of the Ebola virus,” he explained. “As you know it is a strange virus in our region. So right now there is a robust training team that is moving to health facilities in both urban and rural Liberia to provide these trainings and protective materials. So once they have the training and information we are assured that the fear will be put aside and that they can take care of the patients.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said it is working with the Liberian health authorities to propagate health education aimed at countering denial and improving the understanding and prevention of Ebola.
“We want to make sure that the people know what the sickness is about,” said Shelton Yett, UNICEF’s representative in Liberia. “We understand the health workers’ fears, but those health workers have an important role to play in the fight against Ebola.”
Last week, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed at a meeting in Ghana to set up a fund to deal with the spread of the Ebola in the sub-region.
*Correcting that death of nurse and doctor was at Redemption Hospital instead of Dolo health centre as earlier indicated in paragraph five.