Don't let quarantine hysteria deter Ebola health workers: United Nations

Health workers stand by an Ebola treatment unit being preventively set to host potential Ebola patients at the University Hospital of Yopougon in Abidjan on Oct 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Health workers stand by an Ebola treatment unit being preventively set to host potential Ebola patients at the University Hospital of Yopougon in Abidjan on Oct 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

ACCRA (Reuters) - Governments must not deter health workers from coming to West Africa to fight Ebola and quarantine decisions should not be based on hysteria, the head of the United Nations mission battling the virus said on Monday.

The US states of New York, New Jersey and Illinois have issued new quarantine rules for people returning from West Africa in response to fears that US federal guidelines do not go far enough to contain an outbreak centred in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone that has infected 10,000 people.

Some groups have challenged the rules as too extreme and a nurse who was quarantined after returning from Sierra Leone criticised her isolation on Sunday saying she posed no health threat.

"Anything that will dissuade foreign trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the frontline to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate," said Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission (UNMEER).

He said that health workers returning to their own countries should be treated as heroes. "Decisions (on quarantine) should be based on science and fact and not hype and hysteria, and decisions should be taken in a way that will promote the most rapid, effective response,"Banbury said.

UNMEER was set up in part after complaints by aid groups that the World Health Organisation had moved too slowly in its initial response to an outbreak that was identified in March.

The mission has set itself a Dec. 1 deadline to have 70 per cent of cases of Ebola under treatment and 70 per cent of Ebola victims safely and humanely buried. There is an interim goal of mobilising necessary resources by Nov. 1.

Speaking in Brussels, the European Union's new Ebola coordinator urged doctors and nurses to volunteer to go to West Africa and help tackle the crisis.

"What is most needed at this stage is human expertise. The affected countries already have few skilled staff, especially health staff ... They badly need reinforcements," Christos Stylianides told reporters on Monday.

"We also need more beds, from 1,000 at present to 5,000 as soon as possible. Every bed requires eight health and support staff. This means we need to mobilize immediately at least 40,000 staff."

Banbury said a fresh audit of the needs and the international response showed the main requirement was for hundreds of foreign healthcare workers, preferably those who were ready to run Ebola Treatment Units. "We need them and we need them really bad," he said in an interview at the mission's headquarters in the Ghanaian capital.

The East African Community has offered 600 workers while Ethiopia has offered 200 and UNMEER held talks with the World Bank on Monday on how they could be integrated into the overall effort.

The offers come in the context of criticism of the African Union and other regional bodies for not providing enough practical support to governments facing Ebola.

One of the biggest problems UNMEER faces is obtaining accurate statistics on the needs and the spread of the disease.

As a result, it is also difficult to be certain whether reports of empty beds at Ebola treatment centres in the capital of Liberia are early signs of a turning point in the fight against the disease or due to other factors, he said.

But a case of Ebola detected in Mali last week in a two-year-old girl who has since died must be prevented from becoming a national outbreak, he said.

The United Nations sent 1,000 sets of protective gear to Mali for health workers and is deploying fresh staff, Banbury said.

"We are fighting the Ebola fight on three fronts in the three most affected countries," he said. "We cannot afford to fight it on a fourth. So the world, the international community, has to get on top of it really fast in Mali."