Strike Threatens to Close Ebola Clinic in Sierra Leone at the Worst Possible Time

As the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone continues to worsen, hundreds of hospital workers announced a strike over the government's refusal to issue hazard pay.

by Kayla Ruble
Nov 13 2014, 1:10am

Image via Flickr/European Commission

As Sierra Leone continues to see a steep increase in Ebola cases, the country's ability to tackle the virus outbreak seemed jeopardized Wednesday after staff at the only treatment center in the southern part of the country announced a strike over the government's refusal to issue hazard pay.

Hundreds of hospital staff members at the lone Ebola treatment facility in the district of Bo say they have not received additional weekly risk pay of $100 as promised from the government, the BBC reported.

The 60-bed healthcare center in Bandajuma is run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the international medical charity organization that has been on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak since the virus first appeared in Guinea in December. While MSF pays base salaries, the workers say the state has not followed through with additional risk payments.

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Nurses and cleaning staff are reportedly among the protesting workers, with a representative for the group telling Reuters that the staff would remain on strike until they received their pay. Their spokesperson, Mohamed Mbawah, said at least one ambulance had already been turned away.

MSFs emergency coordinator, Ewald Stars, told Reuters that, "if the strike action continues we will shut down the treatment center."

While transmission rates seem to be slowing in Guinea and Liberia, Sierra Leone has continued to see a rise in infections.

A shutdown could have dire consequences. The situation continues to worsen in Sierra Leone, which currently only has 288 beds open for Ebola patients nationwide. According to new figures out today from the World Health Organization, the total death toll in the Ebola outbreak has surpassed 5,000 people, with the total number of cases eclipsing 14,000. 

While transmission rates seem to be slowing in Guinea and Liberia, Sierra Leone has continued to see a rise in infections. In the week of November 9 alone, there have been 421 confirmed cases of the hemorrhagic fever in the West African nation, driven by intense transmission rates in the capital city of Freetown.

While meeting with authorities in the country, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair stressed that the world needs to persist in its fight against Ebola. "More beds, more medical personnel and laboratory testing need to be done, faster, to be on top of this situation," Blair said.

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Although not directly linked to the worker strike in Bandajuma, Reuters reported that Sierra Leone's National Ebola Treatment Center will offer $5,000 payouts if a worker dies taking care of someone with Ebola. The families of more than 100 workers who have already been killed will receive the payments.

A sixth doctor in Sierra Leone was diagnosed with the virus on Tuesday. Sierra Leone's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brima Kargbo said Freetown surgeon Dr. Martin Salia is now undergoing treatment. The five other Sierra Leonean doctors who tested positive for Ebola died. More than 500 West African healthcare workers have contracted Ebola during the current outbreak.

One of the most recent cases of Ebola infections in a healthcare worker was confirmed Tuesday in Mali, where a 25-year-old nurse died of Ebola-like symptoms and later tested positive for the virus. She was infected after unknowingly taking care of a Grand Imam from Guinea who had the virus and died October 27. The man was transported back to Guinea after his death for a burial ceremony, which included the ritual washing that is a West African funeral tradition. In announcing new burial protocols, WHO said at least 20 percent of Ebola infections occurred during this process.

Ahead of a briefing to United Nations member states, Anthony Bradbury, the head of the UN's Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, expressed strong concerns about whether the "true numbers" in the outbreak were being reported. He also said it was important to get ahead of the outbreak instead of chasing it, explaining that the international community needs to add more staff, facilities, and supplies, and improve logistics.

"The number one priority is to stop Ebola as fast as possible," Banbury said. "It's all about stopping the disease, reducing transmissions, ending the crisis, protecting the communities, avoiding future deaths."

The Fight Against Ebola. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

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Image via Flickr/European Commission