When U.S. President Barack Obama promised, on Sept. 16, to help Liberia set up 17 Ebola treatment centers to help stem the outbreak, the sense of relief was palpable in the west African country. That was the kind of robust international response it needed to stop Ebola in its tracks. Getting patients afflicted with the virus into isolation, where they could no longer infect friends and family, would go a long way towards cutting down Ebola’s exponential spread.
But nearly a month later those clinics aren’t up yet, and so far only one—a 25-bed unit designated solely for infected health workers—is even close to completion. Even though there are currently about 600 beds in Liberia, with another 300 expected to come on line in the next few weeks, it is nowhere near the 1,990 that the World Health Organization [WHO] estimates will be required for the current caseload.
The U.S.-built centers, which would make some 1700 treatment beds available, won’t be up and running for another two to three months, U.S. officials said this week. With 8011 infected and 3857 dead in west Africa as of Oct. 8, according to the WHO, and little hope of seeing the number of new cases each week go down any time soon, no one can afford to wait. Which is why both international and Liberian health officials are looking for alternatives. “One of the biggest challenges we are having is getting people out of their homes and into the treatment centers,” says Frank Mahoney, Liberia team leader for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Ebola response. “We have been working furiously trying to stand up treatment centers, but [new cases] have been outpacing our ability to stand them up.”
As a stopgap measure, USAID and some international NGOs are looking at ways to protect caregivers at home. But one organization, with support from both the Liberian government and U.S. officials, is proposing a radical compromise that gets suspected patients out of the home for care, without requiring beds in the yet-to-be-completed official Ebola Treatment Units [ETU]. They are called Ebola Community Care [ECC] centers, hyper-local clinics run by community volunteers and staffed not by trained health workers, but by the very people who would otherwise be taking care of patients in the home: family members.
To a certain extent, stopping Ebola is a question of simple math. If you can get the transmission rate to below one, meaning each infected person spreads the illness to less than one person, on average, the virus will die out. If the numbers are more than 2.5, that means the epidemic is “out of control,” according to Carolyn Miles, President of Save the Children, an international humanitarian aid agency working on Ebola in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Liberia, the transmission rate is somewhere between 1.75 and 2.5, dangerously close to becoming unstoppable. One of the greatest contributors to the high transmission rate is patients staying at home, where they can infect multiple family members. “From a transmission standpoint, it is essential to get people out of their homes,” says Miles. Ebola Community Care centers, she says, give people a place to go while waiting for the specialized treatment units to be set up.
One of the key factors delaying the ETUs is the necessity for a highly-trained staff of physicians, assistants, nurses, pharmacists and sanitation teams working 24/7. Finding, hiring and training that staff is at least as difficult, if not more so, as getting the physical beds in place. But Save the Children’s response cuts down the staff requirements by building temporary holding centers in every community affected by Ebola.
In these centers, patients suspected of having Ebola can wait for testing without fear of infecting others, while those with confirmed infections can wait in isolation wards until a bed in an official treatment center opens up. One caretaker, who will be trained by an on-site supervisor in basic care and self-protection measures, will accompany each patient. The caretakers will be provided with disposable gloves, aprons, gowns and masks, as well as disinfecting solutions for keeping themselves and their charges clean. “Only one family member per patient is allowed into the ECC,” says Miles. “That alone will get transmission to below one.”
The centers won’t have a medical staff on hand full time. Instead each center will be visited daily by rotating teams of doctors, nurses, sanitizers and personal protection gear suppliers, who will replenish stocks as necessary. The mobile teams will be able to visit up to four community care centers a day, reducing the need for staffing and training. One such center, with 20 beds for suspected cases and 10 in a separate isolation ward, will open later this week, in Magribi County, one of Liberia’s most afflicted areas. By the end of the month Save the Children expects to have 10 more up and running.
The risk for family caretakers is still high, given that well-trained health care practitioners working for some of the most rigorously protective treatment centers are still getting sick. But the alternative is more dangerous, says Miles. “ECCs are not as safe as an ETU, but they are safer than having an ill person at home, being cared for by multiple family members in an environment where real isolation may not be possible.”
As much as communities are warming to the idea, the new care centers still face the fear and stigma that plagues anything to do with Ebola. “A lot of people do want to care for their loved ones in a safe environment, and they know there are not enough ETUs,” says Miles. The problem, she notes, is that no one wants a center next door. But until U.S. officials can keep President Obama’s promise, these kinds of stopgap solutions might be the only chance to slow the spread of Ebola.