MONROVIA, Liberia — People critically ill with Ebola languishing in an ambulance for hours as paramedics seek a place for them. Treatment centers filling up as soon as they are opened. The situation is so dire in Liberia that its president welcomed a U.S. pledge to send troops and treatment centers, but said much more needs to be done.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Wednesday urged the world community to redouble efforts to battle the disease, which could spread into other countries after already hitting five West African nations.
"Our American partners realize Liberia cannot defeat Ebola alone," Sirleaf said in a written statement. "We hope this decision by the United States will spur the rest of the international community into action ... The entire community of nations has a stake in ending this crisis."
Even as the promises of aid came, the risks of such help were underscored as yet another international health care worker fell ill while trying to help sick patients in Liberia. Doctors Without Borders — also known by its French acronym MSF — said the female French employee would be evacuated to a special treatment center in France after being placed into isolation on Tuesday.
The infection marks the first time an international MSF worker has contracted Ebola. Six local staff have been infected, three of whom died, though it was not clear that they had become sick at work and may have contracted the virus from the communities where they lived.
More than 300 health workers have become infected with Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nearly half of them have died, according to WHO. At least seven international health care and aid workers already have been taken abroad for treatment, and concerns over health worker infections have made it difficult to recruit the foreign help needed to combat the epidemic.
MSF has long had the most stringent infection control protocol against Ebola. While many facilities are working with a fraction of the staff they need, Doctors Without Borders adheres to its rule that every caretaker treating a patient enters the ward with a buddy, who watches the caretaker to ensure his suit doesn't slip, for instance.
"MSF applies very strict protocols of protection for its staff — before, during and after their time in a country affected by the current Ebola outbreak," said Brice de le Vingne, MSF Director of Operations. "This dramatically reduces the risk of transmission of the disease. However, the risk is part of such an intervention, and sadly our teams are not spared."
The World Health Organization estimates about 1,500 international health workers are needed to help curb Ebola.
President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he will order 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa. The U.S. is also planning on delivering 17 treatment centers with 100 beds each to Liberia. American officials expect to have the first treatment centers open in a few weeks. It is unclear when all of the personnel and equipment will be on the ground.
Ebola is believed to have killed at least 2,400 people in the largest outbreak ever and sickened nearly 5,000, though the real toll may be much higher.
Also Wednesday, Australia announced that it is providing another $6.4 million to the fight, while Germany is considering providing a mobile hospital and transport planes.
The three-hardest hit countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — are desperately short of everything needed to contain it, from health workers to the hazard suits needed to protect them.
In a $1 billion Ebola plan released on Tuesday, the World Health Organization estimated it might have to evacuate about seven international health workers every month as the outbreak continues.
"Evacuating sick (health workers) is an awful situation that no one wants to be in," said Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO assistant-general in charge of emergencies. "This is just part of crisis management. In any emergency situation, you have to take care of your first responders who get infected."
Aylward acknowledged health workers have been getting infected at an alarming rate in West Africa. WHO has already evacuated two international staffers from Sierra Leone in recent weeks, including a Senegalese scientist who was not involved in treating patients and should not have been at high risk for catching the disease.
In Liberia, many of those who have come down with the dreaded disease which is spread through contact with bodily fluids are either not picked up or left to languish in emergency vehicles while waiting for a bed to open up.
One ambulance dispatcher said he knew of at least 30 people in Monrovia, the capital, who were waiting to be brought to a treatment centers. Some were waiting in a hospital not equipped to treat Ebola patients, he said.
"The other day we rushed some critically ill patients to one of the treatment centers, but because there was no space, we had the patients waiting in the ambulance for six hours," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share the information with the media.
Officials have warned that infected people who are turned away from treatment centers often return home where they infect their relatives and neighbors.
Maria Cheng reported from London. Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.