The world is in the midst of the worst Ebola outbreak in history, as the deadly virus has claimed more than 600 lives in three African countries and continues to overwhelm the medical staff tasked with containing its spread. This week, there’s yet another concerning update to the unfolding public health crisis: the top doctor fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone has himself been infected with the disease.
Sheik Umar Khan, a virologist who has treated more than 100 Ebola victims, has been on the front lines of the outbreak for the past several months. The Health Ministry in his home country of Sierra Leone hailed him as a national hero for helping prevent the spread of the virus, which kills up to 90 percent of people who become infected. Now, it’s his turn to receive treatment.
This week, Khan was transferred to a hospital run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders because he contracted Ebola. Reuters reports that his condition is unknown, but he is currently alive and receiving medical attention.
It’s unclear how Khan contracted the virus since, according to his colleagues, he was always careful about wearing protective clothing while he worked with Ebola patients. But in previous interviews, the doctor appeared to be acutely aware of his potential risk. “I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life,” he told Reuters back in June, when he was healthy. “Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk.”
There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola, considered to be one of the most dangerous viruses on the planet. The current outbreak is straining international health workers, who say they don’t have adequate resources to effectively combat the crisis in an impoverished area of the world that lacks an adequate health care infrastructure. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns the epidemic is out of control. But that group, which relies on donations from governments, may also be ill equipped to respond to it — WHO has been forced to cut its outbreak and emergency response budget in half because of dwindling contributions.
“To me, the situation in West Africa should be a wake-up call. This weakening of an institution on which we all depend on is in no one’s interest,” Dr. Scott Dowell, the head of global health security at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told NBC News. “In my view, there is no way the WHO can respond the way it needs to.”
Khan isn’t the only health care professional who’s recently contracted the dangerous disease. Some health providers have died after catching Ebola from their patients, including three nurses working alongside Khan at the same clinic. Sierra Leone’s Health Minister says she’ll do “anything and everything” in her power to ensure that Khan remains alive.