FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — A third top doctor has died from Ebola in Sierra Leone, a government official said Wednesday, as health workers tried to determine how a scientist also contracted the disease before being evacuated to Europe.
The announcements raised worries about Sierra Leone’s fight against Ebola, which already has killed more than 1,400 people across West Africa. The World Health Organization said it was sending a team to investigate how the epidemiologist now undergoing treatment in Germany may have contracted the disease that kills more than half its victims.
“The international surge of health workers is extremely important and if something happens, if health workers get infected and it scares off other international health workers from coming, we will be in dire straits,” said Christy Feig, director of WHO communications.
Dr. Sahr Rogers had been working at a hospital in the eastern town of Kenema when he contracted Ebola, said Sierra Leonean presidential adviser Ibrahim Ben Kargbo on Wednesday. Two other top doctors already have succumbed to Ebola since the outbreak emerged there earlier this year, including Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, who also treated patients in Kenema.
Rogers’ death marks yet another setback for Sierra Leone, a country still recovering from years of civil war, where there are only two doctors per 100,000 people, according to WHO. By comparison, there are 245 doctors per 100,000 in the United States.
The Senegalese epidemiologist who was evacuated to Germany had been doing surveillance work for the U.N. health agency, said Feig, the WHO spokeswoman. The position involves coordinating the outbreak response by working with lab experts, health workers and hospitals.
“He wasn’t in treatment centers normally,” she said by telephone from Sierra Leone. “It’s possible he went in there and wasn’t properly covered, but that’s why we’ve taken this unusual measure – to try to figure out what happened.”
A team of two experts was sent Tuesday to investigate how the infection happened, including whether there is an infection risk in the living and working environments that had not been discovered, said Feig. In the meantime, WHO has pulled out its team from Kailahun, where the epidemiologist was working.
Canada also announced late Tuesday it was evacuating a three-member mobile laboratory team from Sierra Leone after people in their hotel were diagnosed with Ebola.
Health workers have been especially vulnerable because of their close proximity to patients, who can spread the virus through bodily fluids. WHO says more than 120 health workers have died in the four affected countries – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.
While some local health workers have lacked proper protective gear, the teams from the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders are usually well equipped and trained in how to use the protective suiting.
There is no proven treatment for Ebola, so health workers primarily focus on isolating the sick. But a small number of patients in this outbreak have received an experimental drug called ZMapp.
Health officials in Liberia said two recipients of ZMapp in Liberia – a Congolese doctor and a Liberian physician’s assistant – have recovered. Both are expected to be discharged from an Ebola treatment center on Friday, said Dr. Moses Massaquoi, a Liberian doctor with the treatment team.
The drug has never been tested in humans, and it is unclear if it is effective. Only a handful of people have received ZMapp in this outbreak: two Americans, a Spaniard, a British nurse, and three health workers in Liberia, including the two who are set to be released. The Americans have recovered, but the Spaniard died, as did the third health worker who received it in Liberia. The British nurse, William Pooley, is still receiving treatment.
Other Ebola developments:
– The World Health Organization said it was notified Tuesday of an unrelated Ebola outbreak in Congo. The agency said Wednesday that 13 of the 24 people sickened there have died.
– The U.S. Agency for International Development announced it is giving an additional $5 million to provide health equipment and emergency supplies, train and support health care workers, and help build emergency response systems.
– The Nigerian Ministry of Health has ordered all primary and secondary schools to remain closed until Oct. 13 to help ensure that Ebola does not spread any further in the country. Five people have died from Ebola in Nigeria, and officials have expressed optimism the disease can be contained.
– Air France temporarily suspended its three flights a week to Sierra Leone because of the outbreak. The French national carrier is maintaining its flights to Conakry, Guinea, and to Lagos, Nigeria.
Associated Press Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London; Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia; David Rising in Berlin; Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; Rob Gillies in Toronto; and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.