A WHO staffer who has contracted Ebola has arrived in Hamburg for treatment. The Senegalese epidemiologist is just one of many health workers who have contracted the deadly disease in West Africa.
The first Ebola patient to be treated in Germany landed at Hamburg airport on Wednesday, August 27 in a private jet that has been modified to transport patients requiring isolation. From the airport, he was taken to the city's university clinic in an ambulance that was escorted by a convoy of police cars. The University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf specializes in treating contagious diseases and sports a brand-new isolation ward.
The unnamed patient had been transferred from a hospital in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. "We hope that his condition will improve quickly and that he will recover fully from the disease," World Health Organization spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told DW. She confirmed that the patient is an epidemiologist from Senegal who contracted the disease while working at a laboratory in Kailahun. The district in eastern Sierra Leone is among those hardest hit by the disease.
Medical staff at risk
The Ebola death toll across West Africa had risen to over 1,420, according to figures from the WHO, with a total of 2,615 suspected or confirmed cases in the region. More than 240 health workers have developed the disease in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and more than 120 have died. Chaib said a number of factors contribute to the high rate of infections among medical staff.
"These factors include shortages of personal protective equipment or its improper use," she said, adding that far from enough medical staff are in place for such a large outbreak. "These health workers work beyond the recommended hours in order to help, so there is a lack sometimes of vigilance and fatigue that can lead to a health worker becoming infected."
Cases of infection of medical staff had dropped dramatically during prior Ebola outbreaks after the virus had been identified and protective measures were put in place. The current outbreak, the most severe in history, however, has run differently, Chaib said.
"In the beginning of this outbreak many doctors did not know about Ebola, because it is the first time that it has appeared in this part of Africa," she said. That led some doctors to mistake the virus for malaria, typhus or the flu. "It took them some time to understand that it is Ebola and that Ebola is highly contagious."
While hospitals in the West African countries affected by the disease are notoriously under-equipped, doctors at the Hamburg hospital can make use of the newest equipment available. In the isolation unit, no liquids, gases or particles in the air can reach the outside world. Access is only possible through three airlocks. In the first, the air pressure is slightly reduced; in the second and the third even more so. That's to ensure clean air from outside is able to come in, but contaminated air from inside cannot get out. Up until now, the unit has only been used for training.
Doctors and nurses wear special pressurized suits similar to those worn by people dealing with hazardous materials. The suits retain sweat and exhaled air is recycled through a filter. But working in these suits for more than three hours at a time is very difficult, according to Dr. Stefan Schmiedel, who specializes in tropical diseases. Since cleaning the suits is difficult, they are incinerated after use.
"The security precautions that we have taken here are so comprehensive that one can assume that the population is safe," Schmiedel told German public broadcaster NDR. "The medical personnel are also protected to the greatest extent possible and can conduct their work without reservations."
Infection investigation under way
There is no cure or vaccine for the Ebola virus, but the human body is capable of defeating the virus on its own, according to Schmiedel. But that's only possible when the body's functions are successfully stabilized. Patients have to use respirators, have their digestive system artificially supported and their body temperature regulated. In addition, constant infusions are necessary as Ebola patients lose substantial amounts of fluid through vomiting and diarrhea.
The WHO requested in July that another of its employees be treated in Hamburg, but the infected doctor died before he could be brought to Germany. It remains unclear how the Senegalese epidemiologist now in Hamburg contracted the disease. In order to protect his coworkers, the WHO has temporarily closed the health station his team ran in Sierra Leone.
WHO spokeswoman Chaib told DW she hopes experts in Hamburg will help determine how the man was infected so appropriate protection measures for health workers can be taken.
"Then WHO will move a team back to Kailahun," Chaib said. "We already have a team on standby in Freetown that can move very quickly once the investigation has been completed."
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