While the number of deaths due to Ebola and the emerging closer-to-home cases are the focus of daily news accounts, very little is being said about the toll on health care and number of deaths resulting indirectly.
The recent Ebola outbreak has taken the lives of more than 5,000 people in four West African countries and continues to overwhelm their already under-resourced and fragile healthcare systems. While the deadly virus has taken center stage, the untold tragedy involves many indirect deaths caused by the epidemic.
People are terrified, and the fear of contracting the disease is a main factor that is causing health clinics across West Africa to close their doors. The clinics that are staying open are turning many people away. Upon seeing the deaths of their colleagues, many healthcare professionals are dissuaded from putting their lives on the line to manage cases with Ebola-like symptoms; and, when promised, hazard pay isn’t being delivered. Sometimes the incentive isn’t worth the risk. Consequently, many common diseases which are typically prevalent during the transitional fall/winter season – such as malaria, typhoid, and pneumonia – are going untreated, leading to preventable deaths.
The Ebola outbreak has already had a devastating impact on maternal health care. With the closing of health centers across West Africa, maternal health care will only continue to suffer. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and their children are some of the most affected. The unavailability of health clinics and healthcare workers poses a serious threat to women and their children. They are without access to routine prenatal visits. Mothers fear taking their children to the available health clinics for treatment, delaying care for treatable or preventable diseases.
The statistics about health care in Africa are staggering any way you look at them. In 2012, it was reported that nearly 20 percent of children die before they reach the age of 5, and one in 23 women died of childbirth or pregnancy-related causes.
In the West African country of Sierra Leone, there are 6 million people and only 100 physicians. Even before the Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone was ranked the seventh worst in the world for maternal and child mortality. The correlation between lack of healthcare professionals and clinics and the consequences those deficits cause are quite visible.
The lack of healthcare supplies in West African countries is as critical as the shortage of available healthcare professionals and facilities. Clinics have few, if any, needed supplies such as protective gear, IV fluids, gowns and gloves, and hazmat suits. It is nearly impossible to care for people without making body-to-body contact in one way or another. Because Ebola is spread by way of bodily fluid exchange — vomit, urine, feces, saliva, sweat — the most basic of protective gear is absolutely necessary.
The effect of the loss of healthcare services has already shown itself to be severe, and it is expected that women and children will suffer an unprecedented calamity. As the fragile West African healthcare system continues to crack under the pressure of the Ebola outbreak, damage from the epidemic will go far beyond the deaths from the virus itself.
Trust in the healthcare system desperately needs rebuilding; but for that to happen, healthcare facilities and staff members must be well-trained and properly equipped to help others without putting themselves in harm’s way. Until then progress cannot be made at its fullest potential, and thousands will continue to suffer because of it.
Dr. Paula Dhanda is a practicing physician in Kelseyville. She is the founder of Worldwide Healing Hands. She may be reached at 279-8733 or visit http://drspecialtycare.com/ or http://www.worldwidehealinghands.org/.
Published in the Lake County Record Bee: