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In Ebola disputes, keep focus on health workers

A common theme that can help resolve Ebola disputes – such as issues over medical protocols and quarantines – is the desire to support healing professionals in West Africa.

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    Moses Jarba, center, and others gather for an Oct. 29 prayer service organized in response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa and attended by Liberia's ambassador to the United States, Jeremiah Sulunteh, at Saint James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pa.
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Since the Ebola crisis erupted, the United States has had two big disputes over what to do about it. The first was over medical protocols found inadequate in a Dallas hospital. Later the issue was whether to quarantine health workers returning from West Africa. In each case, a consensus had to be found that balances public concerns about the Ebola virus and the best protection against it.

A common theme ran through these disputes: Let’s raise the level of support for health workers in the affected countries. This was the unifying focus in order to contain Ebola (“source control”). 

Even though the science on Ebola remains unsettled, West Africa needs more people in the healing professions – and more support of those brave workers. An article in the Oct. 27 New England Journal of Medicine summed it up: 

“As we continue to learn more about this virus, its transmission, and associated illness, we must continue to revisit our approach to its control and treatment. We should be guided by the science and not the tremendous fear that this virus evokes.

“We should be honoring, not quarantining, health care workers who put their lives at risk not only to save people suffering from Ebola virus disease in West Africa but also to help achieve source control, bringing the world closer to stopping the spread of this killer epidemic.”

On two measures, the US “approach” has shifted. One, donations for Ebola relief efforts finally took off in recent weeks, and not only from wealthy people such as Mark Zuckerberg and Paul Allen. Small donors have begun to give. And two, the latest poll shows that fear among Americans of a family member contracting Ebola has dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent.

As the fear has declined, empathy has risen for the people in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, and especially for the health workers on the front line. Both with money and prayers, more Americans are responding.

President Obama promised to track any returning health worker “in a prudent fashion.” But he added this: “We want to make sure that we understand that they are doing God’s work over there, and they’re doing that to keep us safe.” 

The World Bank estimates the three countries need at least 5,000 more health workers. That demand can be met as the fear of Ebola subsides and support for the healing work rises.

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