As government officials took fresh measures Wednesday to contain the spiraling Ebola outbreak, humanitarian agencies working in west Africa stepped up their efforts to protect their own people and sounded the alarm about the severity of the crisis.
As of July 23, the World Health Organization had confirmed more than 800 Ebola cases, but suspects there have been many as 1,200 cases. WHO has confirmed 456 deaths, and suspects there have been at least 216 more, tied to the virus.
Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, said that those figures likely understate how bad things are, noting “there are many places where people are infected, but we don’t know about it.” And it’s not like officials have had much success corralling the disease.
“This epidemic is without precedent,” said Janssens, whose group also is known as Médecins Sans Frontières. “It’s absolutely not under control, and the situation keeps worsening.”
The Peace Corps announced Wednesday its 340 volunteers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — the three countries hit hardest by the outbreak — will leave because of the outbreak.
The agency didn’t specify when they might return, noting that it is closely tracking virus with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the State Department.
There have been no confirmed cases that Peace Corps staffers have come down with Ebola. But a spokeswoman for the agency did say Wednesday that two volunteers did come in contact with someone who ended up dying from the virus.
Those two Americans haven’t shown signs of Ebola, though they were being isolated and observed just in case, the spokeswoman said. “When they receive medical clearance to return to the U.S., we will work with them to travel safely back,” she added.
As of now, the outbreak has been confined to west Africa. But there are rising concerns that it could spread, especially since a person may not know they have Ebola or show symptoms for 2 to 21 days after being infected.
“If the situation does not improve fairly quickly, there is a real risk for new countries to be affected,” Janssens said.
Samantha’s Purse also evacuating staff
Other aid organizations besides the Peace Corps also are pulling its workers from the area.
Because of the uptick in Ebola cases in the region, Todd Shearer, a spokesman for Samaritan’s Purse, told CNN that the organization is evacuating nonessential staff out of Liberia. Serving in Mission also has recalled all nonessential personnel from Liberia, according to its website.
Two Americans working with Samaritan’s Purse who were infected with the deadly Ebola virus “have shown a slight improvement in the past 24 hours,” according to the evangelical Christian humanitarian agency.
Both remain in serious condition, the agency said.
Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, who last lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and Nancy Writebol, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, sought treatment for exposure to the virus last week. Both were caring for patients with Ebola in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
Brantly works with Samaritan’s Purse. He has been the medical director for the Ebola Consolidated Case Management Center in Monrovia, where he has been providing care for Ebola patients since October. After testing positive for the virus, Brantly went into treatment at ELWA Hospital.
Writebol works for Serving in Mission, or SIM. The missionary organization had teamed up with the staff from Samaritan’s Purse to help fight the Ebola outbreak when she got sick.
It is believed one of the local staff was infected with Ebola and came to work with the virus on July 21 and 22, Samaritan’s Purse vice president Ken Isaacs said. That staff member died Thursday.
“We think it was in the scrub-down area where the disease was passed to both Nancy and Kent,” he said.
Liberian president: ‘Ebola kills’
On Monday, the CDC issued an alert warning travelers to avoid hospitals with Ebola patients and funerals for those patients in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea due to the outbreak.
The United States is considering raising the alert to discourage “nonessential” travel to those three countries, a spokesman said.
Liberia — which earlier this closed its borders to try to contain the virus — has shut down all of its schools as well as markets in border areas.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also urged residents to avoid public amusement and entertainment areas, and set aside Friday “for the disinfection and chlorination of all public facilities.”
“My fellow Liberians, Ebola is real. Ebola is contagious. And Ebola kills,” Sirleaf said. “All of us must all take extra measures announced by the Ministry of Health to keep ourselves safe.
“The government will do its part. But you must do yours.”