In praise of... medical staff fighting Ebola

Disease claims life of Dr Sheik Umar Khan, who was treating more than 100 patients

Dr Sheik Umar Khan told a BBC reporter: “Even with the full kit we put on we’re at risk. I’m afraid for my life, because I cherish my life.” Photograph: Reuters/Umaru Fofana

Dr Sheik Umar Khan told a BBC reporter: “Even with the full kit we put on we’re at risk. I’m afraid for my life, because I cherish my life.” Photograph: Reuters/Umaru Fofana

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

The Ebola pandemic raging in west Africa is the most deadly to date, with about 700 people having succumbed to the virus. It is already significantly more lethal than the previous worst outbreak, in 1976, which was also the first outbreak of the highly contagious virus that kills up to 90 per cent of people who contract it. This outbreak is also alarming in that it marks the first time the disease has spread beyond the jungles and reached major cities, greatly increasing the difficulty of controlling it.

Nigeria, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are straining to cope with the outbreak, with Margaret Chan of the World Health Organisation yesterday warning regional presidents: “This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it. If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”

Among the dead this week was Dr Sheik Umar Khan, one of Sierra Leone’s leading medical experts and a specialist in viral haemorrhagic fever. He was treating more than 100 patients when he contracted the illness, dying within weeks.

Before his death he told a BBC reporter: “Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for those with the disease. Even with the full kit we put on we’re at risk. I’m afraid for my life, because I cherish my life. And if you are afraid then you must take the maximum precautions, stay vigilant and stay on your guard.”

Dr Khan’s sacrifice is just one of many among health workers in west Africa struggling to contain the disease. Others include three nurses at the clinic where he worked, as well as one of Liberia’s highest-profile doctors. Young doctors from the US and Canada have also been quarantined after showing symptoms.

Given Ebola’s extreme virulence and the risks of a wider epidemic, the bravery these medical professionals exhibit in trying to contain the outbreak is deeply admirable.