In Brief

Ebola: US suit stockpile causes shortage in Africa

Biohazard suits are in short supply causing prices to rise as a result of 'increased anxiety' in the US

The CDC says the hoard is necessary because emergency services across the country need to have access to the suits in case they come into contact with an infected patient in an emergency room or responding to a 911 call.

There are only a few manufacturers capable of making the suits, which are considered a key weapon in protecting healthcare workers from infection and containing the disease. Manufacturers have been struggling to meet demand, leading to price increases.

Over 15,000 people have been infected with Ebola in West Africa and at least 5,400 people are known to have died from the disease. In contrast, there have been just 6 cases in the US and two deaths.

"The shortage shows how the deep anxiety over Ebola’s arrival in the US has complicated efforts to fight it in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea," writes the Wall Street Journal's Drew Hinshaw.

A spokesperson for World Vision, the Christian humanitarian group, working in Sierra Leone said that the scarcity of biohazard suits was causing "sleepless nights" for volunteers in the region.

Similar shortfalls have been reported with powdered bleach and rehydration solution. Both play an essential role in disinfecting treatment centres and treating patients.

“If you have an earthquake, your stress on your supply chain will be for maximum one month," said Jean Pletinckx, the medical emergency coordinator for the charity Medecins sans Frontieres. "But in an Ebola situation, because the situation is not under control, you never know if a new wave will come," he added. "It’s like if you have a permanent earthquake."


Ebola: first team of NHS volunteers arrives in West Africa

24 November

The first team of British volunteers from the NHS has arrived in Sierra Leone to join the fight against Ebola.

The team, made up of more than 30 GPs, nurses, clinicians, psychiatrists and consultants in emergency medicine will work on testing, diagnosing and treating people with the virus across the country.

"Every one of these NHS heroes will play a vital role in the fight against Ebola," said development secretary Justine Greening.

One of the volunteers, senior sister Donna Wood, explained why she and the others were heading to Africa. "I'd been following the stories on the news and I felt I had to do this straight away: I could use the skills I've got to make a difference and join a team to help bring the disease under control,"

The volunteers attended a nine day intensive training course run by the Ministry of Defence in York in order to prepare them for the conditions in Sierra Leone. 

They will receive an additional week of training in the capital Freetown, before moving to treatment centres across the country where they will be working with established medical charities. The group will spend five weeks away, returning at the end of December.

Dr Gordon Gancz, general practitioner and senior lecturer at the University of Oxford described how the team would cope with being away from their families and in such a challenging environment during the festive season. "We've all got little things hidden in our suitcases for Christmas and we've already started planning a pantomime for ourselves," he told the BBC.

Hundred of NHS volunteers have signed up to help contain the deadly outbreak which has killed over 5,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Further deployments will continue in the coming weeks.

"I want to thank the brave NHS volunteers who are heading to Sierra Leone today to help in the fight against Ebola," said Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. "They embody the values at the heart of our health service, and their expertise and dedication is second to none."

There are now over 1,000 British military personnel, scientists, healthcare and aid workers helping across West Africa as part of the UK's £230m aid package to help contain the disease.

Ebola: health fears stop British journalist from hosting awards

19 November 

A British journalist has pulled out of an awards ceremony in London over health and safety fears after returning from West Africa where he had been reporting on the Ebola outbreak.

Alex Thompson, Channel 4 News chief correspondent had been due to co-host tonight's Rory Peck awards for freelance journalists in London, but will now be replaced by his colleague, international editor Lindsey Hilsum.

Thompson had been on assignment in Sierra Leone until last week and has been widely praised for his brave reporting of the deadly outbreak.

And although the event "honours those who typically take risks to report difficult stories", The Guardian reports that organisers may not have been able to secure approval from all audience members. "The fact Thomson would have to shake hands with the award-winners might have caused some concern," it reports.

The incubation period of Ebola can be up to 21 days, but a patient is not infectious until they begin displaying symptoms.

The ceremony co-host, Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford, who has also been covering the outbreak in West Africa but has passed the incubation period, said it was "shame" Thompson would not be joining her as it "would have dispelled myths around the disease".

Crawford has previously spoken to the Guardian about how her team were treated as "social pariahs" after returning from the region. She also criticised mandatory quarantines, saying such measures were used "to pacify people who are ignorant".

"Just because people are a bit scared – it's ridiculous," she said. "We're going back to the Dark Ages"

In other developments:
  • William Pooley, the British nurse who has returned to Sierra Leone to treat Ebola patients after recovering from the disease himself, says he is "frustrated" by the "woefully slow" international response to the outbreak, the BBC reports.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged a further $5.7m to help fund the development of experimental drugs to fight the disease, particularly the use of blood plasma. The organisation has already donated $50m.
  • A doctor treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone has become the first Cuban national to ever contract the disease, Reuters reports. He is being treated by British healthcare workers and is expected to be flown to Geneva for more specialist treatment.

Ebola: experimental drug trials to begin in West Africa next month

13 November

Clinical trials for three experimental Ebola treatments are set to begin in West Africa next month, as the official death toll surpasses 5,000.

"This is an unprecedented international partnership which represents hope for patients to finally get a real treatment," MSF spokeswoman Dr Annick Antierens, told the BBC.

The virus is now believed to have infected over 14,000 people, mostly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Three different treatments will be trialled at hospitals managed by Médecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity that has been leading the fight against the current outbreak.  Two of the trials will take place in Guinea, while the location of the third is yet unknown.

Professor Peter Horby, from the University of Oxford said the trials are crucial to containing the disease. "There's both the humanitarian need, a tragedy for individuals and for communities and we need to do everything we can to offer some hope to those communities," he said.

"But there's also scientific need, we have these products which may or may not work in patients with Ebola and the only way we can test them is during an epidemic."

Ebola: US declared virus-free as the doctor recovers

13 November 

An American doctor who was diagnosed with the Ebola virus last month has made a full recovery, according to health officials in New York, and the virus is now no longer believed to be present in the US.

Dr Craig Spencer caught the disease while working for the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Guinea. He has been under quarantine in a New York hospital and received a wide range of treatments, including an experimental drug and blood plasma donated by a recovered Ebola patient, the New York Times reports.

"After a rigorous course of treatment and testing, Dr Craig Spencer has been declared free of the virus," said the city's health officials. He is expected to be released later today.

They say he now poses "no public health risk" but the World Health Organization warns that men are still able to transmit the disease through their semen for almost two months after their recovery.

His case sparked a national debate on how healthcare workers returning from affected regions should be treated and led to some states imposing highly controversial quarantine methods.

Eight out of nine Ebola-positive patients treated in the US have survived, showing that with early intervention and more intensive care, the fatality rate outside of West Africa is much lower.

The current outbreak has killed an estimated 5,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In other developments:
  • Leading charities have warned that one in seven women in Ebola-affected countries could die in pregnancy or childbirth because hospitals are so overwhelmed.
  • Bill Gates has said he believed that progress was being made in the fight to contain the virus in West Africa. "Ever since the big intervention that started in August I think the world's done quite well - the United States and the UK stepping up with the most resources," he told the BBC.
  • Google has pledged to give $2 for every dollar donated through its site to the fight against Ebola. Its CEO also said the company would immediately donate $10m to support the charities "doing remarkable work in very difficult circumstances", in West Africa.
  • Bob Geldof and Midge Ure are re-releasing the iconic song Do They Know It's Christmas to raise money for the victims of the outbreak. It was originally released 30 years ago and raised £8m for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Robots could be sent to join the fight against Ebola 

07 November

White House officials are meeting scientists to discuss the potential role of robots in fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Robots are routinely used in some hospitals in the West and are often deployed to some of the world’s worst disaster zones, but their presence could soon be extended to countries facing disease epidemics.

There is significant interest in developing robots that could help save lives in the current outbreak, according to the BBC's Jen Copestake.

"We're trying to pull the workers further away from the disease," Velin Dimitrov, a robotics engineering PhD candidate told her.

Robots could perform a variety of dangerous tasks such as waste removal, the burial of bodies, helping healthcare workers safely remove their protective clothing as well as the decontamination of surfaces. This would significantly reduce the risk to health care workers, almost 300 of whom have died during the current outbreak.

According to scientists, using robots would be relatively inexpensive. Existing robots could also be deployed to the worst affected areas, saving millions that might otherwise be spent developing new ones.

The robots will not be autonomous, but remotely operated by someone at a safe distance, say developers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. There is no suggestion that they would be used as a replacement for health care workers.

"We have a moral obligation to try and select, adapt and apply available technology where it can help," Gill A. Pratt, a roboticist at the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency told the New York Times.

Scientists are aware that they will face numerous challenges on the ground if "Ebola robots" become a reality.

"We don’t want to be seen as capitalising on the tragedy," said Dr Ken Goldberg, a professor of industrial engineering and operations research at Berkeley. Nobody, he says, wants to be seen as someone who says, 'We’re sending in the robots,’ which sounds "insensitive and crass."

Scientists also have to be aware of cultural attitudes, as many West African people may be unwilling to accept the fact that a machine is handling the body of a loved one. "It’s something we can do, but it has to be culturally sensitive," said Robin Murphy, a specialist in rescue robotics.

Scientists also need to make sure that the use of robots will not inflict any additional mental trauma on patients. People with Ebola already feel stigmatised by their communities, so it’s important this situation is not exacerbated. 

Ebola: UK-funded treatment centre opening in Sierra Leone

05 November 

A British funded treatment centre and laboratory are opening in Sierra Leone as part of the UK’s contribution to the fight against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa

Located south of the capital in Kerry Town, the facility is able to treat nearly 100 patients at a time and is the first of six British-funded centres built to help fight the deadly outbreak. It will be jointly run by the Department for International Development and the charity Save the Children.

Further treatment centres and laboratories are expected to be completed in the coming weeks and will be staffed with British volunteers from Public Health England, the NHS and universities as well as army medics.

Save the Children’s chief executive Justin Forsyth told the BBC: "We’ve never done something like this treatment centre. It’s enormous for us and it was a risky decision, but it’s something I feel very proud about." He added that he and his team were in a "race against time" to contain the outbreak.

In total, the UK government has committed £225 million to help fight the outbreak in West Africa which is thought to have killed over 5,000 people so far. The government’s response includes the deployment of 800 military personnel, the construction and staffing of treatment centres and laboratories as well as the training of local healthcare workers.

"Tackling Ebola at the source is key to beating it and stopping the spread, said development secretary Justine Greening on a recent visit to the region."Some of Britain’s best and brightest scientists will be at the forefront of our UK-funded testing facilities ensuring that people with Ebola are isolated and then treated as soon as possible." 

Visiting the new treatment centre, Sierra Leonean president Ernest Bai Koroma told the BBC that it was "very impressive," adding that he hoped it would "give a lot of confidence, not only to locals but internationally, to come here and work with us".


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