Panic hampering efforts to tackle Ebola, says agency

‘Mass hysteria’ in West making it hard to recruit key staff, bring in supplies

Rising international hysteria about Ebola is hampering efforts by aid agencies to tackle the disease in west Africa, according to the director of an Irish Aid-funded treatment centre in Liberia.

Seán Casey, team director of the International Medical Corps in Liberia, said "mass hysteria" about the disease in the US and Europe in recent weeks was making it harder to recruit and retain staff and could make it harder to get in much-needed supplies.

“Growing restrictions on travel to and from west Africa will isolate the affected countries further, compromise the supply chain and inhibit efforts to get staff,” Casey said. “People who want to get out will do so – but they’ll do it under the radar, subversively.”

Casey was in Dublin yesterday after a 2½-month stint at an Ebola treatment unit in Bong county in Liberia, which is part-funded by Irish Aid. He plans to return there next week.


Stay away

Casey has personal experience of the hysteria that has taken root. Passing through London, he was asked not to attend an alumnus event because he had travelled from Liberia. And while the BBC was keen to interview him, they told him not to come in to their studio.

Meanwhile, a nurse colleague was asked by her flatmates to move out when she returned home.

The treatment unit operated by the medical corps, four hours from the Liberian capital Monrovia, has 70 beds, half of which are occupied. That could be a sign of some improvement in the battle against Ebola, Casey said, “or it could mean people are afraid they will go in and never come out alive”.

The unit has treated 120 patients without suffering any infection among staff. Its fatality rate, at 40 per cent, is lower than the overall rate in this epidemic. The time taken to produce test results for Ebola has been cut from four days to four hours.

The medical corps wants to expand its provision, but it needs to be sure of a steady flow of staff and equipment for the unit, which costs $1 million a month to operate.

"This is not going to end quickly," said Casey, a third- generation Irish-American from Pennsylvania. "We need to sustain a supply of technical experts and we need to be able to move people in and out. A travel ban would impose a physical and a psychological barrier for existing and potential staff."

Halting virus

Equipping local communities to handle Ebola cases represents the best chance of halting the progress of the virus, according to

Margaret Fitzgerald

, an Irish doctor who has recently returned from Liberia.

Fitzgerald spent almost four weeks working with the World Health Organisation’s global outbreak response team. She said the disease appeared almost impossible to control in Monrovia when she arrived there last August.

“It was frightening. The hospitals were empty or had been closed down, their staff dead or in fear of the virus. Treatment centres were offering only 20 per cent of the capacity needed,” she said.

Faced with the depletion of medical staff and the lack of treatment units, the WHO has embarked on a programme of training local communities to handle cases. Basic protective kit, and the training to use it, is provided, and villagers are being advised to designate a specific hut for the treatment of patients.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times