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SF nonprofit joins fight against Ebola

San Francisco-based non-profit Emergency USA has joined the battle against Ebola in Africa, opening an Ebola treatment center in the western region of Sierra Leone two weeks ago.

The Ebola virus, spread by contact with bodily fluids, has spread through West Africa with 6,553 confirmed cases and 3,083 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

About one-third of reported cases are in Sierra Leone, with 2,021 confirmed cases and 605 deaths, according to the WHO.

Emergency USA operates its 22-bed Lakka Ebola Treatment Center free of charge, serving three million people who reside around the capital Freetown.

The organization was spurred to open their center when a patient they attempted to transfer from their Goderich hospital died after being turned away by existing treatment facilities that were at capacity.

The non-profit found all treatment centers were full and would not send an ambulance. The patient died two days after the attempted transfer in the Goderich hospital isolation ward.

Emergency USA Executive Director Eric Talbert told SFBay:

“There was a lot of reporting to encourage people to get treatment early. […] To finally have reached a hospital where he could be received, test positive, and be told that (receiving treatment) was no longer the case was incredibly difficult for his family as well as the staff.”

Luca Rolla, Emergency USA medical coordinator in Sierra Leone, wrote on the organization’s blog:

“We decided to open this Ebola Treatment Center because the epidemic isn’t showing any signs of letting up. The positive cases can only increase and more healthcare personnel, isolation wards and beds will be needed to treat them.”

Last week, the Sierra Leone government ordered a three-day lockdown to educate the population on Ebola safety protocols. Sierra Leone officials reported 130 new cases of Ebola during the lockdown.

Aside from lack of education, Emergency USA Executive Director Eric Talbert suggests economic barriers, like transportation and food costs, keep those with Ebola symptoms from self-reporting. Food prices have spiked since the lockdown.

Crowded treatment centers, lack of infrastructure and roads for transportation, limited ambulances, and roads washed out by seasonal rains provide more obstacles to treatment.

Dr. Joseph Becker, clinical assistant professor and emergency room physician at Stanford School of Medicine, has studied public health in Rwanda and Ethiopia. Becker told SFBay families who pursue treatment often drain vital resources for food and education to buy medicine and fluids to save their relatives’ lives:

“The money is put into potentially futile efforts. … Poorly equipped government-run and district hospital facilities can’t handle critically ill patients, such as those with Ebola.”

The Emergency USA treatment center currently serves 12 patients, two transferred from Emergency USA’s Goderich hospital and 10 self-reported patients, according to the latest reports from Emergency USA.

Sierra Leone’s ministry of health provided 20 local nurses of the Lakka treatment center’s 110-member staff. Among the staff are four doctors, six international nurses, and 70 cleaners. Talbert said:

“It’s an intense cleaning process. If anybody has been treated, the pillow, sheets, and protective equipment are incinerated.”

In 2001, Emergency USA started operations in Sierra Leone, opening a hospital offering free services in Goderich during the civil war.

Since the Ebola outbreak, Emergency USA has expanded from surgical and pediatric care to free Ebola treatment, with plans to open another 90-bed treatment center in Lakka at the end of October.

Talbert blogged that the only way to properly deal with Ebola and prevent future outbreaks is long-term, sustainable health care:

“Years of conflict in Sierra Leone have destroyed its medical infrastructure […]. This pervasive and prolonged situation leaves the local population dangerously vulnerable to a crisis such as the current Ebola outbreak.” 

Becker affirms the importance of rebuilding national health care, and adds that it is unclear how many Ebola deaths occur because the virus kills quickly or there is little access to quality critical care.

Emergency USA’s Lakka Ebola Treatment Center requires $260,000 each month just to operate. Emergency USA has set up a Fundly to assist with the treatment of Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.

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