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Ebola Outbreak Takes Toll On Africa's Health Workers


Ebola is having a devastating impact on health workers in the affected countries. That means fewer people to care for the infected and fewer people to do the critical research needed to understand and stop the epidemic. Case in point - five people listed as co-authors on a major study released last week died before their work was published. They were a doctor, three nurses and a lab tech, all part of an effort at Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone to learn the origins of the outbreak and the genetic mutations that have made it more deadly.

Dr. Robert Garry of Tulane University is another co-author on that study, published in the journal Science and he joins us now from New Orleans.

Dr. Garry, welcome to the program.

ROBERT GARRY: Pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: First I want to offer my condolences to the loss of your colleagues here. I understand that this was a long relationship with this hospital.

GARRY: The people that died were my friends and colleagues for a long time so yes, this is very real to me.

CORNISH: Help us understand what exactly it was that the medical workers at Kenema Hospital were doing, in terms of the research.

GARRY: Well, the researchers there were basically taking care of the patients - collecting the blood samples to do the diagnosis of the illness to see if the patients actually had Ebola. They were the ones that packed them up and sent them off to Boston so that they could be sequenced.

CORNISH: Dr. Sheik Umar Khan was one of the first high-profile victims of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, in part because he was coordinating the national response. Can you tell us a little bit about the other four - I know at least three of them were nurses?

GARRY: One of the nurses was the head nurse at the Lassa ward. Her name was Mbalu Fonnie. She had been working on Lassa fever, another hemorrhagic fever, for 30 years. And her specialty was actually working with pregnant women who came down with Lassa fever. It's actually probably how she contracted Ebola, too. She caught it from a pregnant woman that had Ebola.

CORNISH: And I understand, not just a pregnant woman; a fellow nurse.

GARRY: That's quite right, yeah. The other two nurses were also terrific people; very dedicated, been there for between six and 10 years. They really respected their patients and had spent a lot of time with them. So they're also irreplaceable people. The lab tech, Mohamed Fullah - really a great guy. I spent a lot of time working with him in the laboratory. He's going to be really missed too.

CORNISH: Can you tell us a little bit more about the actual lab work here? Is it this that was a danger to these medical workers, or was it the treating of patients?

GARRY: It definitely wasn't the laboratory work. The laboratory is a much more controlled situation. Treating patients is much more dangerous, of course. There's almost constantly a risk of exposure. The one lab tech that did unfortunately develop Ebola didn't catch it in the lab. He had several family members who had contracted the disease so he caught it out in the community.

CORNISH: Throughout the countries affected by the outbreak, there have been 256 health workers so far that have been infected. At this hospital alone in Sierra Leone, two dozen nurses, doctors and support staff have died of Ebola.

Beyond the very obvious deep disruption to the medical community here, can you talk about how deep the loss of institutional knowledge is?

GARRY: It's devastating. Sierra Leone just came out of a long civil war about, you know, 12 years ago or so and so that disrupted all of the training. A lot of people left - that were educated - that could leave. And so we're really just seeing some of the first graduates from the medical school there. So having lost so many people - that's a devastating loss for a fairly small country.

CORNISH: And we reported last week on the research itself. It involved genome sequencing of the virus and 78 patients. Can you remind us some of the key findings?

GARRY: Well, what we found was is that the virus entered Sierra Leone basically from a single source. And we also found that the virus is spreading just human to human - no more introduction from the animal reservoirs. We also found that the virus is changing. It's mutating as it moves from person to person. And it's mutating at a faster rate than it did when it was just circulating in the animal reservoir. Our study doesn't really point to is the virus getting stronger or weaker - but it is a roadmap to do some studies along those lines.

CORNISH: Dr. Robert Garry of Tulane University. He spoke to us about the toll Ebola has taken on health workers in West Africa. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GARRY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.