A medic has spoken of the horrific scenes witnessed by emergency doctors and nurses in the fight against the deadly Ebola outbreak in Guinea. Naoufel Dridi, who works with humanitarian charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), described the suffering by patients struck down by the tropical virus, and the difficulties facing aid workers as they attempt to treat those suffering.
French Mr Dridi, 41, has been helping coordinate the charity’s relief work in the West African country and said that in his 13 years working with MSF he had never had to cope with the number of deaths in such a short space of time.
The number of suspected cases in Guinea has now reached 122, and at least 80 people are believed to have died. ‘You can be helping somebody by getting them a juice, or a glass of cold water, or whatever he wants because you know really he has very little chance to survive, and then less than an hour later he is dead,’ Mr Dridi told the Daily Telegraph. ‘Then when you are putting his body in the bag, another one behind you has died. Then another one.’
Ebola is passed onto humans from animals – especially fruit bats – and often breaks out near rainforests in central and western Africa.
Patients who develop the severe acute viral are often suddenly subjected to fever, muscle pain, headaches and sore throats, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes, impaired kidney and liver function.
In some cases sufferers experience both internal and external bleeding, and the highly contagious, and painful illness, can be passed on to humans through contact with the bodies of people killed by the virus.
There is no cure for the virus, and no vaccine which can protect against it.
The Ebola outbreak is the first of its kind in West Africa in two decades, and the first ever in Guinea.
Other West African countries, including neighbouring Sierra Leone and Libera where suspected cases have also been detected – are now scrambling to bring the outbreak under control, with many of them imposing health and travel restrictions.
Morocco has imposed strict controls to stop the disease spreading into the country, and Saudi Arabia’s health ministry has recommended that its government stop issuing visas to Muslim pilgims from Guinea and Liberia from visiting its holy sites.
Mr Dridi, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, said that many local doctors and nurses did not initially know how serious the virus was, as it is the first time Guinea has been affected by it.
MSF staff have been wearing full protective clothing to help prevent the spread of disease and have made it clear to local medics that there are no drugs to treat the virus.
He said it was difficult for both medics and the families of those affected to move patients into isolation tents to prevent the virus being passed to relatives and staff. ‘They know we can only treat the symptoms, not the virus. Whether that person survives or not is only down to whether the body reacts well and fights the illness,’ said Mr Drdi, who has now returned to the MSF headquarters in Switzerland.
MSF have warned they face an uphill task to battle the virus because the infections are scattered across several locations, most worryingly in Guinea’s densely populated capital Conakry. But the World Health Organisation has played down the extent of the outbreak, and said there had previously been much larger numbers of people affected in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
‘This is relatively small still. The biggest outbreaks have been over 400 cases,’ WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told a news conference in Geneva.
He added it was not the first time Ebola had been reported in a capital city. It struck Gabon’s Libreville in the 1990s.
‘Ebola already causes enough concern and we need to be very careful about how we characterise something which is up until now an outbreak with sporadic cases,’ Hartl said.
However, MSF Director General Bruno Jochum said it was remarkable the outbreak had spread to several places and to a city of around two million people, Conakry.
‘These two characteristics make it an exceptional event for an Ebola outbreak up until today,’ Mr Jochum said, adding that given the high mortality rates among identified cases, it should be taken extremely seriously.
Ben Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading, also said it was a real worry that the virus had spread from sparsely populated forest zones to Conakry, where population density was close to 10,000 per square kilometre.
‘An Ebola outbreak there could lead to a humanitarian disaster,’ he said.
The outbreak of one of the world’s most lethal infectious diseases has alarmed a number of governments with weak health systems, prompting Senegal to close its border with Guinea and other neighbours to restrict travel and cross-border exchanges.
Guinea, the hardest hit by the outbreak, had the lowest ratio of hospital beds per capita in a World Bank survey of 68 nations in 2011, with just 0.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people.
In Liberia, there were seven suspected or confirmed cases, of whom four have died.
Liberia’s Senate on Tuesday agreed that the government should declare a state of emergency that would lead to the closure of the country’s borders.
‘Liberia should close her borders with all the three countries which are sharing borders with us – Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast,’ said Senator Sando Johnson.
Liberia’s lower house of parliament is expected to debate the proposal on Thursday. If passed, it will be sent for approval to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.