Ebola At Eye Level: Looking At The Outbreak In Sierra Leone Dr. Suzanne Donovan recently returned from a trip to Sierra Leone, working with the WHO on its Ebola response. NPR's Arun Rath talks with Donovan about her on-the-ground view of the Ebola outbreak.

Ebola At Eye Level: Looking At The Outbreak In Sierra Leone

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The United Nations is calling for medical personnel from all over the world to help control the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that future epidemics might be prevented by the creation of a standing core of U.N. medics who could rapidly respond to outbreaks. But without such a response team available now, many hospitals in Sierra Leone and Liberia are relying on international volunteers to staff them. Suzanne Donovan is an infectious disease doctor based in Malibu, California. And she just returned from Sierra Leone. Suzanne Donovan, welcome to the program.

SUZANNE DONOVAN: Thank you very much, Arun.

RATH: So first, can you tell us why did you decide to go to Sierra Leone and volunteer with the World Health Organization?

DONOVAN: Well, my background as a county physician in Los Angeles is in both infectious diseases and infection control. And there's a tremendous need for specialists in infection control to be in West Africa because of the very large number of healthcare workers that have been infected in isolation and treatment centers for Ebola there. And unfortunately, there's been a very, very high death rate. The hospital that I went to, which is called Kenema General Hospital - the leadership at that hospital - all were infected with Ebola and died. So the hospital has been staffed by the World Health Organization.

RATH: And the situation there - compared to where they need to be in terms of having the number of beds, the number of facilities they need - where do they stand now? And what were you able to do to help?

DONOVAN: The bed capacity in Sierra Leone is so far below than what is necessary. As I'm sure you know, they recently had a 72-hour lockdown of the entire country. And unfortunately, that lockdown occurred without sufficient bed capacity. So when they were going house to house, doing education, which was fantastic, they also were looking for cases. Unfortunately, when they did identify cases, there were no beds in any of the treatment units for anyone who was sick.

RATH: You went out of your own initiative, right?

DONOVAN: That's correct.

RATH: Now, there's been a perception that state actors, governments have sort of been lagging behind what epidemiologist and doctors have been warning. Do you feel like things are now where they should be in terms of getting the help out there that they need?

DONOVAN: I think one of the things that's been lacking is having one agency acting as a public health leader in this crisis. When you have an outbreak like this that transcends borders, you have to have one agency that is coordinating the response to this.

In terms of are we where we need to be, the answer is no. It's fantastic the U.S. is coming in and is going to expand bed capacity. But remember, that's unstaffed beds. So I believe the directive was that they are going to be training 500 individuals a week. My question is where are those 500 individuals going to come from?

RATH: Dr. Donovan, what would you say that people in this country might be missing about the Ebola outbreak?

DONOVAN: I think what the stories that have not been told about the Ebola outbreak - is the impact Ebola has had on the health infrastructure in these countries. So there's thousands of people that have been infected and died from being infected with Ebola. But no one's talking about the many more thousands that are dying because their malaria's not being treated. Their tuberculosis is not be treated.

And one of the ironies is that when a patient goes to a clinic and they have a complaint - maybe they have typhoid disease, or they have fevers because of a chronic cough - they are shipped off to the Ebola unit as a suspect. So not only are they not being treated for what they came to the clinic for, but they now are in a isolation unit and potentially being exposed to Ebola.

So one of the things that I prioritized when I was working at Kenema General Hospital is going into the initial unit and seeing those patients and really trying to get a rapid diagnosis on them so we could get them out of the unit before they were exposed to someone who may have Ebola.

RATH: That's Dr. Suzanne Donovan. She's an infectious disease specialist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. She just returned from Sierra Leone, where she worked with the World Health Organization on containing the Ebola outbreak. Dr. Donovan, thank you so much.

DONOVAN: You're very welcome.

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