The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has claimed more than 10,000 lives and infected some 25,000 people since it was first identified in March 2014. Even after a year, health authorities have been unable to contain the virus. Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, published a report on Monday slamming the international community's slow response and detailed the indescribable horror faced by its staff. The MSF also blamed the governments of Guinea and Sierra Leone for refusing to admit the scale of the epidemic, saying they put needless obstacles in the path of the aid agency.
The MSF report said, "Months were wasted and lives were lost because the UN's World Health Organization, which is charged with leading on global health emergencies and possesses the know-how to bring Ebola under control, failed to respond quickly or adequately." The report accused the WHO's Global Alert and Outbreak Response Network of ignoring desperate pleas for help from Liberia when it met in June last year. Marie-Christine Ferir, MSF emergency coordinator, said, "I remember emphasizing that we had the chance to halt the epidemic in Liberia if help was sent now. It was early in the outbreak and there was still time. The call for help was heard but no action was taken."
AdvertisementThe WHO failed to set up a regional hub for coordinating the response until July, by which time a second wave of the epidemic had struck. The report said, "All the elements that led to the outbreak's resurgence in June were also present in March, but the analysis, recognition and willingness to assume responsibility to respond robustly were not."
With no help from the WHO particularly in the early months, the MSF had to carry much of the response. But, the organization had only 40 staff with experience of Ebola when the outbreak began. Brice de le Vingne, MSF director of operations, said, "We couldn't be everywhere at once, nor should it be our role to single handedly respond. It was only when a US doctor and Spanish nurse were diagnosed with Ebola that the world woke up to the threat." The crisis sparked the biggest training program in MSF history, with 1,300 international staff and 4,000 locals deployed.
The MSF was initially focused on Guinea and Sierra Leone but when aid agency Samaritan's Purse pulled out of Liberia after the US doctor's infection, MSF faced a wrenching decision- abandon the country or push its hugely over-stretched staff still further and risk major mistakes. De le Vingne said, "We couldn't let (Liberia) sink further into hell. We would have to push beyond our threshold of risk, and we would have to send coordinators without experience in Ebola, with only two days of intensive training."
MSF built a 250-bed center in Liberia's capital Monrovia, but even that was far from enough. The center was able to open only 30 minutes each morning, when beds were filled and got vacated by deaths overnight. The report describes people dying on the gravel outside the gates of the treatment center, and a father who brought his daughter in the boot of his car, begging MSF to take her in for treatment so as to not infect his other children at home, but who was turned away. Rosa Crestani, Ebola task force coordinator, said, "It was an indescribable horror. There were so many patients and so few employees that the staff had on average only one minute per patient."
The report also points the criticism inward, saying MSF too should have mobilized faster. The report concluded, "This Ebola outbreak has wrought an exceptionally heavy toll on MSF's staff, and particularly on our west African colleagues. Not since the early days of HIV care have MSF staff sustained the loss of so many patients dying in our facilities and never in such an intense short period of time."