In Sierra Leone, health workers are at 100 times the risk of getting infected with the deadly Ebola virus as the general population, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The dramatic statistic underlines the fact that the global epidemic has taken a particular toll on the doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to treat patients.
Although Ebola has mostly dropped out of the headlines here in the United States now that it’s no longer a political threat, it remains a serious problem in several Western African countries — and particularly in Sierra Leone, where infections have surged in recent weeks. About 100 new cases are being reported there every day.
Health workers are especially struggling to survive. Altogether, at least 105 medical personnel in Sierra Leone have died since the outbreak began. The chief medical officer recently said he’s “baffled” by all of the casualties in the health care sector.
In July, one of the country’s top doctors, and an expert who was widely regarded as a national hero for his work to contain the Ebola epidemic, succumbed to the virus — a significant blow to morale among residents of Sierra Leone. Last month, a doctor passed away after being flown to the United States to receive treatment here. And last week, three doctors died within a three-day span.
There weren’t many medical professionals to begin with in Sierra Leone; the country has an estimated 2.2 doctors for every 100,000 people. “They can ill afford to lose health care workers,” Dr. Peter Kilmarx, the CDC official who led the recent research into the infection rate in Sierra Leone, told NBC News.
On Tuesday, doctors went on strike to demand better treatment for local health care workers who become infected with the virus. The president of the country’s Junior Doctors Association said that doctors have been dying at at “alarming rate” and are not receiving the same standard of care as Western professionals. For instance, they allege the Sierra Leone doctor who was transported to a Nebraska facility in November received more attention because he was a permanent U.S. resident.
CDC officials believe that some of the country’s health workers are becoming infected as a result of inadequate protective gear. But others are put at risk when they’re interacting with patients who haven’t yet been diagnosed with Ebola, often because tests for the virus have returned a false negative. Or, they’ll expose themselves when they help care for friends or family who are too scared to go to official hospitals.
One of the cruel things about the Ebola epidemic is the fact that it punishes people for making compassionate choices to help others. In order to protect themselves, people living in the affected countries are being told to stop touching their loved ones and avoid holding traditional funerals for them once they die. That’s an especially difficult message to impart to health workers, who have chosen to dedicate their lives to protecting other people.
“The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight. For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to boost its defenses, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters are TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year,” the magazine’s managing editor, Nancy Gibbs, wrote.