Liberia health workers strike over Ebola

13th October 2014, Comments 0 comments

Health workers across Liberia went on strike on Monday to demand danger money to care for the sick at the heart of a raging Ebola epidemic that has already killed dozens of their colleagues.

Doctors, nurses and carers in west Africa are on the frontline of the worst-ever outbreak of Ebola, which has killed more than 4,000 people, mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and the hardest-hit, Liberia.

The Liberian walkout came as US authorities scrambled to find out how a Texan healthcare worker contracted the tropical virus, in the first case of contamination on US soil and the second outside Africa.

As the new US case fuelled global jitters, EU ministers called a meeting for Thursday to discuss screening travellers from Ebola-hit west Africa, in line with steps taken by Britain, the United States and Canada.

The chairman of the Liberian health workers' union, Joseph Tamba, said his strike call had been "massively" followed.

"Health workers across the country have downed tools as we asked them to do," Tamba told AFP.

In the capital Monrovia, where staff at Island Clinic, the largest government-run Ebola facility, have been on a "go slow" for three days, a patient quoted on local radio described scenes of desolation with the sick deserted by staff.

"We are at the Ebola Treatment Unit and no one is taking care of us," the unnamed man said. "Last night several patients died. Those who can walk are trying to escape by climbing over the fence."

Journalists have been banned from Liberia's Ebola clinics, making the situation on the ground difficult to ascertain.

- Risk bonus -

Ninety-five Liberian health workers have died so far in the epidemic, and their surviving colleagues want pay commensurate to the acute risk of dealing with Ebola, which spreads through contact with bodily fluids and for which there is no vaccine or widely-available treatment.

Danger money aside, Tamba said many workers were not even being paid their regular wage to combat an epidemic that has killed more than 2,300 in Liberia and overwhelmed its skeletal health service.

He said that at the Island Clinic -- which is backed by the World Health Organization -- staff were promised a monthly wage of $750 (595 euros) for nurses and lab technicians, and $500 for other carers, but they have received a third less.

"It's as if the government was piling on extra staff without having to pay them a wage," Tamba charged.

In neighbouring Sierra Leone, where 97 health workers have also died, teams charged with burying Ebola victims in Freetown also went on strike last week over late payment of their risk bonus.

- 'Breach in protocol' -

Both cases of contamination reported so far outside Africa -- in Spain last week and now in the United States -- have involved health workers who fell ill despite stringent safety protocols surrounding Ebola.

Authorities in the United States confirmed an unidentified female carer had tested positive for the disease following "extensive contact" with a Liberian Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died on Wednesday.

The worker at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas is in isolation and said to be in stable condition.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it believed there had been a "breach in protocol", although her employers insisted she had followed CDC precautions, which would have included wearing a mask, gown and gloves.

President Barack Obama called for "immediate additional steps" to ensure hospitals were ready to follow Ebola protocols, as nurses' representatives demanded protective equipment, including hazardous materials suits, and specialised Ebola training.

While the CDC was working to track down other carers who may have been exposed in Dallas, it said any spread into the community "can be prevented with proper public health measures."

- 'Highly-connected world' -

The United Nations says aid pledges have fallen well short of the $1 billion needed, leading WHO chief Margaret Chan to warn of "many more cases" to come for Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia without radical action by the international community.

But Chan voiced confidence that developed nations would be able to contain the virus.

"We are living in a highly-connected world, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some cases of contamination are happening, like it happened in the USA," she told reporters.

However, she said, "we do not expect the countries with a good system of health to experience a situation like in the three countries of west Africa."

In Spain, the crisis cell set up when Madrid nurse Teresa Romero fell sick after caring for two missionaries with Ebola, said there was "reason to hope" she could recover.

Fifteen other people are under observation in Madrid for symptoms of the disease, which include fever, diarrhoea, vomiting and bleeding.

Spain defended the decision to repatriate the elderly missionaries as a duty.

"How could we leave two compatriots who gave their life to help others?" asked Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz.

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© 2014 AFP

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