As West Africa's Ebola epidemic continues to worsen, local healthcare systems are being completely overwhelmed. In Liberia, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, there is not a single bed available for any more patients.
The WHO reports that more than 4,200 cases of Ebola have been confirmed in West Africa, leading to at least 2,296 deaths. Troublingly, 49 percent of all cases and 47 percent of all deaths had occurred within the 21-day period before September 6, indicating that the spread of the disease may be accelerating.
"As soon as a new Ebola treatment facility is opened, it immediately fills to overflowing with patients, pointing to a large but previously invisible caseload," the WHO said in a statement. "Many thousands of new cases are expected in Liberia over the coming three weeks."
Shortage worsens disease transmission
The complete absence of treatment facilities has led many Liberians to pack into taxis and ride around in search of some place that will accept their sick relatives. When no such facility can be found, the WHO reports, many families simply return to their homes. This places the entire family and anyone else they come into contact with at an increased risk of contracting Ebola.
Disturbingly, the bed shortage has also therefore turned taxis themselves into a sources of potential Ebola transmission, as the vehicles are not being disinfected after use by sick passengers.
Yet the bed shortage is unlikely to alleviate any time soon. One report counts the number of beds at Ebola treatment facilities at just 570 in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone combined.
In Sierra Leone, the growing crisis moved the government to announce a three-day curfew for September 19-21. Other than for business deemed essential, no pedestrians or vehicles will be allowed on any street in the country for the entire period, in order to "ensure that the dreaded disease is checked," the government said.
"Making a sacrifice for three days and living for another 20 or more years is better than not making the sacrifice and you die within 21 days," said President Ernest Bai Koroma.
During the curfew, 20,000 volunteers will be dispatched to visit every single home in the country of 6 million, looking for Ebola patients.
"Likely Ebola cases will be identified or dead bodies will be referred to contact tracing, referral or burial teams," said Steven Ngaoja, head of Sierra Leone's Ebola Emergency Operations Centre,
U.S. no better prepared?
The rapid spread of the disease has overwhelmed not just local health care systems, but also the WHO's disease-monitoring programs. According to Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO Department of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases, authorities know that official estimates of Ebola cases and fatalities are far too low.
"We know that the numbers are under-estimated," Briand said. "We are currently working to estimate the under-estimation."
"It's a war against this virus," Briand said. "It's a very difficult war. What we try now is to win some battles at least in some places."
If Ebola were to spread globally, even the healthcare systems in wealthier countries could be overwhelmed. According to a report released by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General on September 8, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is "ill-prepared" for a public health crisis even on the scale of the 2009 influenza pandemic, let alone a global Ebola outbreak.
In 2006, Congress allocated $47 million to the DHS to prepared for a national medical crisis. The September 8 report found that millions of dollars of this money were spent on equipment or supplies that are now unnecessary, worthless or missing. For example, investigators found more than 4,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in a DHS storage facility that had been expired for as long as four years.
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Written by David Gutierrez