The news that a doctor leading the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone has contracted the infection spotlights the selfless work of health care workers on the front lines of the outbreak.
Dr. Sheik Umar Khan is among 1,093 people known to have contracted the deadly virus, according to newly released numbers from the World Health Organization. At least 660 people have died in the outbreak, which spans Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, according to WHO.
I spent 13 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many of those years working on the investigation and control of outbreaks. The deadliest infections I worked with were cholera and anthrax. While my family never liked the thought of me working with dangerous diseases, I knew how to reduce my risks. I also knew that if I made a mistake, both infections were treatable with antibiotics.
It’s a different situation for people working with Ebola. There’s no drug to treat the hemorrhagic fever, and no vaccine to prevent the offending virus’s spread. In some outbreaks, as many as 90 percent of people who contract the disease die from it. And healthcare workers are among those at the greatest risk.
These heroes are constantly surrounded by sick people. Early in the course of an Ebola infection, the illness can resemble other more common diseases like malaria, influenza and dengue fever. While wearing protective equipment can greatly reduce the risk of transmission, you’re unlikely to be wearing it unless you know you’re dealing with Ebola.
The protective equipment is also very uncomfortable. I wore it when I visited an Ebola treatment ward during an outbreak in Uganda in 2012. My entire body was covered in a gown, boots, gloves, face shield and mask. The heat was barely tolerable and quickly dehydrating. After 30 minutes in the ward, I needed to take a break. It’s easy to imagine that someone working in that setting for long periods of time might be tempted to shed some of the protective measures to stay in the ward longer and care for more patients.
But in some areas, there are complaints that there is insufficient gear for the doctors, nurses and other health care workers who need it. Faced with the choice between leaving patients untreated or helping with inadequate protection, many health care workers will put their own lives at risk. It’s their mission, their calling.
When anyone contracts Ebola, it’s essential to try to understand how the transmission occurred. With health care workers, the moral obligation is even higher. We need to ensure that everyone working to control this outbreak has the equipment, training and resources they need to be as safe as possible. These people are heroes. Just as firefighters are willing to risk their lives in burning buildings knowing that no amount of training and equipment can eliminate the risks, the same is true for those who respond to outbreaks of deadly infectious diseases.