FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Sierra Leone accused the World Health Organization on Monday of being “sluggish” in facilitating an evacuation of a doctor who died from Ebola before she could be sent out of the country for medical care.
Dr. Olivet Buck died Saturday, hours after the U.N. health agency said it could not help evacuate her to Germany.
Buck is the fourth Sierra Leonean doctor to die in an outbreak that has also touched Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal. The West African outbreak has been blamed for more than 2,400 deaths, and experts say it is out of control. The U.S. has called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council for this week to discuss the crisis.
At a heated news conference Monday, a Sierra Leonean government official read a statement saying that the Buck is the second doctor from that country to die because negotiations on evacuation had dragged on. Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, the country’s top Ebola expert, was being considered for evacuation when he died of the disease in July.
“In both the cases of late Dr. Khan and Dr. Buck, we have observed a sluggish willingness by WHO in facilitating medical evacuation of Sierra Leonean Ebola-infected doctors for advance treatment abroad,” according to a statement from a presidential communications task force read out by Deputy Minister for Political and Public Affairs Karamoh Kabba.
He added that the two doctors died while their fates “hung in negotiations.”
But the World Health Organization responded Monday that it can only evacuate its own staff and that, given the number of health workers becoming infected, the solution is not to evacuate them all anyway. Some 300 health care workers have been infected so far, about half of whom have died.
“We would like to help everyone, but we cannot help every health worker that gets infected,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman at WHO. “We need to ensure enough quality health facilities in those countries so everyone can get treated, firstly health workers.”
Sierra Leone had requested funds from WHO to transport Buck to Europe. But on Monday, Kabba said that money was not the main impediment to evacuating Buck. It would have cost $70,000, he said, and the government had the money, but it needed WHO’s help to facilitate the evacuation. He did not elaborate on what that meant.
Jasarevic said that WHO is “not a medical evacuation agency.” Earlier, the agency had said that it would instead work to give Buck “the best care possible” in Sierra Leone, including possible access to experimental drugs.
Several foreign health and aid workers, including a Senegalese epidemiologist working with WHO, have been evacuated when they became infected. In at least some of those evacuations, the patients’ home governments and employers played a role in getting them out of West Africa.
Because Ebola is only transmitted through bodily fluids of people who are symptomatic, health care workers are at a particular risk. Some 300 have become infected since the outbreak began, exacerbating shortages of health care workers in countries that had too few doctors and nurses to begin with.
Meanwhile, International SOS, a medical and travel security risk services company, said it flew two Dutch doctors who may have been exposed to Ebola in Sierra Leone to the Netherlands on Sunday. The National Institute for Public Health and Environment said last week the doctors, who were working with an aid group, were not showing symptoms of Ebola but they had contact with infected patients without the proper protective equipment. Upon their arrival in the Netherlands, they were initially taken to the Leiden University Medical Center and their condition will be monitored.