Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some Nations Still Ill-Equipped To Deal With Ebola


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is a serious disease, but we can't give into hysteria or fear.

RATH: That was President Obama, who devoted his weekly video address today to reassuring Americans about Ebola. In Texas, one man has died and two nurses who helped treat him are now being treated for the virus. In West Africa, Ebola has killed about 4,500 people. In Sierra Leone, one of the three most affected nations, the death toll number's around 1,200.

To get an understanding of the unprecedented logistical demands the epidemic poses for healthcare workers in Africa, we turn to Steve McAndrew. He's the head of Emergency Operations for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Sierra Leone and has worked in multiple disaster zones. When we spoke, I asked him for an update on the situation on the ground in Sierra Leone.

STEVE MCANDREW: The situation on the ground is definitely getting worse here. And we still have a situation where the affected people are contaminating and passing the virus onto at least one to two other people. So the overall - the virus infection rate is increasing.

RATH: As an operations guy for the Red Cross you've responded to large disasters before - places like Haiti and Syria recently. In terms of the scale of the logistical challenges, how does this compare?

MCANDREW: Oh, this one is really different and it's really a brand-new challenge. We have never done anything like this before. First of all, the logistics are increasing daily. So in other operations, we have an event occur like a tsunami or an earthquake, and even in conflicts, we can monitor and we can see how it's going. So natural disasters usually - from the moment they're finished people are starting to recover. So every day is better than the day before even without international aid.

On this operation, every day is getting worse. So it's really a reverse situation for us. The logistical challenges are absolutely incredible here. We have to be precise and we have to be really perfect and impeccable in our implementation. Ebola is something you cannot make one mistake with.

RATH: And you use the word precise. Can you talk to us a little bit about the medical supplies? What is unique about them when it comes to this disease in particular?

MCANDREW: Well, we have to really control this virus with activities like burials and in our treatment centers. And for the staff who are doing that work, they need to be wearing protective gear. Now the protective gear has to be really of high level and it has to be put on and taken off, more importantly, in a strict protocol.

So for example, if we get some gloves and they're not really the right gauge, the virus can pass - could pass through the gloves. And if we have goggles that have a crack in the corner, or we have materials that are not the best standards we can find, we put our people at risk. So it's really making us be absolutely precise and really making us to double check everything we're doing. So we have to be - we just need to raise the bar is what we're doing.

RATH: And what about disposal of bodies? Because I understand that the corpses have a huge virus load and are very infectious.

MCANDREW: Yes, the burial of bodies is a really really big part of what we're doing. We are training and deploying burial teams daily. In Sierra Leone, we've buried over 350 people. And the burial process is really very specific and it's very dangerous. So we've not had one Red Cross person in Sierra Leone inflicted with Ebola yet. And we're quite proud of our work so far. But the bodies themselves are highly contagious - and also the traditions in this part of Africa for burials involve touching of the deceased loved ones. So not only do we have to do the burials correctly but we have to change cultures and the way people act here. We have to change mindsets and raise awareness of the dangers at funerals. We're going to win this battle with discipline and repetition. We just have to keep doing it over and over and we keep learning from any mistakes. So we're getting better as we go along and we think we can get ahead of this thing.

RATH: That Steve McAndrew. He's the head of the International Red Cross' emergency efforts in Sierra Leone. Steve, thank you very much.

MCANDREW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.