U.S. groups provide relief from Ebola in West Africa

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As the worst outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus sweeps through three West African nations, two American organizations — Pittsburgh’s Brother’s Brother Foundation and the Toledo, Ohio-based West African Education and Medical Mission — are working together to provide relief to the region through continued shipments of medical supplies.

The first symptoms of the virus appeared three months ago in Guinea. When Ebola was diagnosed, local governments didn’t view the outbreak as significant.

But now, with about 400 deaths, hundreds of infected, highly contagious patients have overwhelmed hospitals in two other affected countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

To contain the epidemic, the World Health Organization continues to call for multilateral “drastic action.”

The previous major Ebola outbreak was in 2007, killing 187 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa.

Humans contract Ebola after exposure to infected animals. It manifests in a sudden and intense fever and is believed to be spread through communities by bodily fluids, including perspiration. Protective equipment is necessary to keep doctors and patients safe from the easily spread virus.

American organizations can help provide such equipment.

Brother’s Brother, a global relief organization founded 56 years ago, has supported 200 African hospitals to date. When its president, Luke Hingson, visited Sierra Leone in February, he met Toledo doctors Karen and Tom Asher.

The couple serve as medical advisers to the Christian Health Association of Sierra Leone, which has aided and staffed 12 hospitals and 40 clinics. Co-founders of the West African Education and Medical Mission, they have been living in Africa for nine months of the year since 2008.

At a WHO conference this week in Ghana, health authorities from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and neighboring nations will work on a unified strategy for controlling the epidemic.

Senior officials in affected nations are requesting the help of the developed world.

“This is very urgent. There is no time to lose; People are dying,” said Ibrahim S. Conteh, deputy chief of mission for the Embassy of Sierra Leone in Washington, D.C.

The WHO estimates that symptoms can appear from two to 21 days after contraction, after which Ebola has a fatality rate of as much as 90 percent. Since the first case in 1976, the disease has killed more than 3,000 people.

Although contained to Africa at this point, health authorities have warned that one infected airline passenger could transmit the disease beyond the continent. There is no known cure or vaccine.

According to the Ashers’ colleagues on site, the Sierra Leone government is working with nongovernmental organizations to gather supplies and staff for the most endangered areas.

Additionally, roadblocks serve as fever checkpoints, and national radio and fliers attempt to educate about symptoms and prevention.

In a country with one Ebola testing site, 100 doctors to treat its 6 million people and an average family daily income of $1.16, communication is limited.

Two major health care concerns dominate international conversation around the epidemic and inform the way that the Pittsburgh and Toledo organizations are responding.

First, the safety of doctors and hospital staff is of high priority.

“The people in our hospitals are looking at their jobs as missions to serve their local areas,” said Dr. Karen Asher. “That’s why we think this is so important; these people are putting their lives on the line to go to work.”

“What do you do with the patients in the hospitals when there’s nobody to take care of them?” added Mr. Hingson of Brother’s Brother Foundation.

Health advocates also worry about the tendency of West African hospitals to over-ration in an effort to maintain supplies.

“One of the things we think is most effective is assuring them, ‘Go ahead and use it. There are more coming,’ ” Dr. Karen Asher said.

“There are shortages that the Western world can’t even imagine,” she said, to explain the over-rationing. “I remember walking around an [obstetric] ward, looking down and seeing maggots in a reused catheter.”

Mr. Hingson recalls a similar scene in the Connaught Hospital of Freetown, Sierra Leone. “In the pediatric orthopedic ward, mom was the IV pole,” he said.

Adequate supplies go a long way in addressing both issues.

In a unified effort, Brother’s Brother and WAEMM accept contributions of operating tables, IV poles, fluids, mattresses, exam gloves, gowns, masks, soap and protective gear from local hospitals, companies and private citizens.

Once packed into a shipment, the supplies spend three months at sea.

“Our goal is to get a chain of deliveries going,” said Arthur Allen, director of WAEMM.

“We’re in this for the long haul. We send shipments all year because the need is there all year,” said Dr. Karen Asher.

Although the coalition’s immediate assembly of supplies won’t reach West Africa until the end of the summer, the knowledge of their existence is designed to empower affected hospitals, especially in Sierra Leone, to protect their doctors and use what they have to treat the Ebola outbreak.

The Ashers will return to the region this year, despite the risks. They will join more than 150 teams of doctors that WHO has dispatched to assist in the disaster response.

“How can we not? I can count on one hand the number of American children that died in my decades here as family doctor,” Dr. Karen Asher said. “One out of every five kids will die in that country.”

Mr. Hingson echoed the need for immediate action, even from as far away as Pittsburgh.

“We are small, but we are responding because we are part of the world,” he said.

Emma S. Brown: ebrown@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3778.


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