As the death toll rises in West Africa amid the worst Ebola outbreak on record, a separate threat is compounding the problem: the rainy season and the malaria that comes with it.
In Sierra Leone, with the most Ebola cases in the epidemic, a fearful population is failing to seek medical attention for any diseases, health officials say. If they have malaria, the feeling is they don’t want to go near a hospital with Ebola cases. If it’s Ebola, they don’t believe the hospitals can help them anyway, instead turning to traditional healers.
It’s a widening challenge complicated by the fact that Ebola, malaria and cholera share common symptoms early on, including fever and vomiting, which can cause confusion among patients, said Cyprien Fabre, head of the West Africa office of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department.
“We now have increased mortality for these other diseases” as well, Fabre said by telephone from Freetown, the country’s capital, after visiting Ebola treatment centers in Kenema and Kailahun near the eastern border. “This is a slow-motion disaster.”
The issue threatens to further undermine health and welfare in Sierra Leone, which has the world’s highest rate of child and maternal mortality, Fabre said.
The outbreak has killed 932 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since it was first reported in March, according to the World Health Organization. That includes 45 deaths from Aug. 2 to Aug. 4, the health group said.
“I’m afraid of going to the hospital because if they don’t tell you about having Ebola, it will be something else that will break your heart,” said Ibrahim Kalokoh, a 34-year-old disc jockey, in an interview in Freetown. “If I am experiencing malaria symptoms, I would rather rush to a pharmacy and buy drugs than go to the hospital.”
“Right now,” he added, “going to the hospital is the worst you can suggest to me, with all the Ebola noise around.”
Beyond the fear are other issues contributing to the problem, according to Fabre. Health workers afraid of getting infected are becoming increasingly reluctant to help out, and one treatment center has exceeded its capacity of 88 beds.
“Health-care practitioners are afraid to accept new patients, especially in community clinics all across the country,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said. “Consequently, many common diseases which are especially prevalent during the rainy season, such as malaria, typhoid and common cold, are going untreated and may lead to unnecessary and preventable deaths.”
As traditional healers pick up the slack, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma today ordered the closing of so-called “mushroom hospitals” run by untrained doctors and nurses in impoverished areas.
A Spanish priest, Miguel Pajares, is the first Ebola-infected European citizen to be returned home, according to newspaper El Pais. Pajares arrived in Spain this morning and is being cared for at a hospital in Madrid, the newspaper said. Two Americans who were infected with the disease were brought back to the U.S. in the last week.
The Ebola virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person. There is no approved cure. Standard treatment is to keep patients hydrated, replace lost blood and use antibiotics to fight off opportunistic infections. The hope is that the body’s immune system will eventually beat the disease.
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Makiko Kitamura and Silas Gbandia