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U.S. doctors and nurses are desperately needed to fight the outbreak in West Africa, and they're finally starting to volunteer in larger numbers. But getting them deployed is complicated and slow. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: As soon as the Ebola outbreak started to spiral out of control in West Africa, Kwan Kew Lai felt obligated to help.
KWAN KEW LAI: I'm a physician. I specialize in infectious diseases.
AIZENMAN: For the last decade, she's dedicated herself to volunteering for international health emergencies. She works part-time at one of Harvard's teaching hospitals just to have that flexibility. But when Ebola hit, the group she normally goes out with pulled the one doctor they already had in Liberia and shut down further operations. Doctor Lai didn't give up. She figured she'd just find another organization to work with.
LAI: I just said to myself, I can't be sitting here at home. I really need to be there.
AIZENMAN: She wrote the World Health Organization. She says she got one E-mail requesting information she'd already given them, then never heard back. She also tried USAID, the agency that's leading the U.S. government's response in West Africa.
They've set up an Internet portal for medical workers who want to volunteer. Juanita Rilling of USAID explains how it works. Medical professionals login...
JUANITA RILLING: ...Then they put, you know, all of their information about their experience and their contact information in the portal. And then every day we share the contents of the portal with about 150 nongovernmental organizations that are either working in West Africa or supporting health sector work in West Africa.
AIZENMAN: So far, about 2,700 would-be volunteers have signed up, but Doctor Lai found that aid groups have been slow to sift through the list. She put in her application in early September, but she's only now hearing back from many groups, including a number she'd already contacted directly in the meantime.
Do you think that there may be a lot of people out there who are interested in going to Liberia and doing this work but who are still where you were?
LAI: Floundering? I would think so.
AIZENMAN: At least she's no longer floundering. Nearly three months after she started her search, the aid group International Medical Corps or IMC signed her on to help run an Ebola treatment unit in a rural county of Liberia. But here, Doctor Lai ran into another issue. Whereas she was ready to leave in as soon as two weeks, IMC told her it would be more like a month and a half.
Rabih Torbay, head of the group's international operations, explains that while IMC ultimately plans to operate four Ebola treatment units, it would be dangerous to ramp up too fast.
RABIH TORBAY: We start small just to make sure that, you know, patients are coming and that we have all the protocols in place and we have - you know, the staff are comfortable. Then we increase the bed capacity - not starting all four at the same time because that will be overwhelming for any agency.
AIZENMAN: Many would-be volunteers who have full-time jobs at hospitals are facing yet another obstacle - resistance from their employers. This includes several dozen medical workers who've told their bosses at Mass General Hospital and an affiliated hospital in Boston that they want to go. Mass General regards that kind of service as a core part of its mission. They usually give incentives for people to volunteer - time off and some pay. But that's not an offer this time. The hospital isn't encouraging its employees to go. Miriam Aschkenasy is the hospital's deputy director of global disaster response.
MIRIAM ASCHKENASY: It is a pressing need. There's no doubt. But institutionally, there's a hesitation because there are a lot of considerations...
AIZENMAN: ...Like the amount of time staffers would need to take off. For most disasters, two weeks is sufficient. But to work on Ebola, staffers need two weeks just to get trained, then four weeks to work in an Ebola treatment unit, then three weeks off work to monitor their symptoms just in case.
Just as importantly, Aschkenasy says, hospital officials worry there's no infrastructure to take care of their staff if they get sick with anything - not just Ebola - and no easy way to get them to another country.
ASCHKENASY: The institution is primarily responsible for the liability of their staff. I mean it looks very bad if your staff goes off somewhere and something really bad happens to them.
AIZENMAN: And yet, she says, she still hopes medical workers will step up. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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