Top Liberian Doctor Quarantined in Throes of 'Vastly Underestimated' Ebola Crisis

A health care worker checks on patients admitted to the Ebola Treatment Unit in Island Clinic in Liberia. (Photo: USAID/flickr/cc)

Top Liberian Doctor Quarantined in Throes of 'Vastly Underestimated' Ebola Crisis

Death toll surges as chief medical officer places herself in incubation period

As Liberia's chief medical officer placed herself under quarantine on Saturday, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the Ebola death toll in West Africa had surpassed 3,000--though it warned for the second time in as many months that the statistics "vastly underestimate" the true scale of the epidemic.

Bernice Dahn, a deputy health minister who has represented Liberia at several regional conferences, voluntarily placed herself into a 21-day incubation period after her assistant died of the disease. Dahn told the Associated Press that she did not have any Ebola symptoms but wanted to ensure that she was not infected.

According to the WHO, the 21-day quarantine is the maximum period for Ebola, which has spread rapidly throughout West Africa in recent months and hit Liberia particularly hard.

The epidemic has been compounded by a shortage of health workers and facilities and an insufficient response from the international community. At least 200 health workers have died in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, three of the countries where the disease has hit particularly hard. Sierra Leone declared their own crisis a "state of emergency." Their government imposed a three-day lockdown on residents earlier this month and last week quarantined over one million residents in the country's eastern region.

Additional WHO figures released Friday say 150 people died in Liberia in just two days.

"The Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa is the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times," WHO said in a statement. "Never before in recorded history has a biosafety level four pathogen infected so many people so quickly, over such a broad geographical area, for so long."

"The current situation is so dire that, in several areas that include capital cities, many of these common diseases and health conditions are barely being managed at all," WHO said.

At a UN meeting of world leaders in New York on Thursday, President Barack Obama stressed the urgency of a coordinated international effort to address the crisis.

"If unchecked, this epidemic could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the coming months," Obama said. "Ebola is a horrific disease... If ever there were a public health emergency deserving a strong and coordinated international response, this is it."

The President's contribution to fighting the disease was military-based, as he announced last week that the U.S. would send 3,000 troops to West Africa to "support" doctors and scientists in containing and finding new treatments for the outbreak. It remains unclear what the role of the military will be in the public health crisis.

On Thursday, Joanne Liu, president of MSF, planned to appear at the UN conference to tell delegates that "the promised surge has not yet delivered," according to her prepared remarks, the Washington Postreported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released new estimates that Ebola may infect 1.4 million people in Liberia and Sierra Leone by the end of January.

"The cost of delay will be devastating," CDC said.

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