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Oct 27, 2014 6:57 PM

US official: Welcome home medics fighting Ebola

The Associated Press

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) Health care workers who go to West Africa to fight Ebola must be welcomed home and nothing should be done to impede fighting the disease "at its source," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Monday.

After an American doctor who was working in Guinea became ill on his return to New York, a handful of states are beginning to require returning doctors and nurses to quarantine themselves during the disease's incubation period, which can last up to 21 days. The U.S. has also stepped up screening of travelers from West Africa at airports.

Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters in Sierra Leone that she would not be subject to quarantine on her return.

Ebola has infected more than 10,000 people and killed about half of them, the vast majority in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. There have been some cases outside the worst-hit countries, including in the United States.

The best way to keep Americans safe, she said, was to continue to ramp up the response to the disease in West Africa.

"It is important that health care workers who come here to help feel that they are welcome back on their return to the U.S.," she said. "We have to deal with the epidemic at its source" and not impede the response.

Power said one of the most moving scenes she witnessed Monday was watching Sierra Leoneans being trained to provide care for their fellow citizens.

Power said that U.S. authorities must be understanding of the fear the disease inspires, but not be ruled by those fears.

"We have to find the right balance but not minimize the fears being expressed," she said. "The fears have to be managed to a comfortable level."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Ethiopia, made an even more direct appeal on Monday for governments not to quarantine health care workers returning to their shores.

"Returning health workers ... should not be subjected to restrictions that have no scientific basis. They should not be stigmatized for their selfless service," he said.

Power said the international response has come a long way in recent weeks, but more still needs to be done.

"We have seen an increase in the number of beds in treatment centers to be built, more health care workers have been coming in from other countries and the number of personal protective suits have increased," she said.

But gaps remain, and more countries need to step up to fill them, she said.

This is Power's second stop on her tour after visiting Guinea on Sunday.

While there, Power expressed confidence on her Twitter account that the epidemic would be defeated but quoted one worker at a non-government organization as saying that aid workers are "running behind a train & the train is going faster than us." She also described a "heartbreaking change" in Guinea: No one hugs or even touches, for fear of catching the disease.

Ebola is forcing such changes throughout the region. In August, Liberia's government ordered that the body of anyone who died of Ebola in Monrovia be cremated a practice deeply at odds with the typical funeral rites in the country.

The decree has been blamed for keeping many Liberians from seeking treatment because they want to be buried if they die. On Monday, Ciatta Bishop, who coordinates the handling of the bodies of Ebola victims, tried to assuage those concerns by saying that families can request the ashes of their loved ones. She also said authorities are keeping a list of all those who have been cremated and will erect a memorial at the end of the crisis.

So far, 1,700 bodies have been cremated, she said. In a sign of how sensitive the issue is, her press conference was broadcast on state radio, and people across Monrovia listened intently to her explanations of the cremation process.

There is no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola, so separating the sick from the healthy and ensuring the bodies of those killed by the disease are properly handled are the only ways to stop Ebola's transmission. But that job has been made difficult because there aren't enough beds in Ebola treatment centers or enough ambulances to bring people there.

Health authorities are meant to rigorously track down everyone who has had contact with the sick and monitor or even isolate them during the disease's incubation period. However, the disease spread for so long before it was identified in West Africa that tracing contacts has been difficult, if not impossible, in the worst-hit countries.

Countries with more limited cases have done a better job. Mali, which announced its first Ebola case last week in a 2-year-old who traveled on public transportation from Guinea, was monitoring 116 people on Monday who had contact with the toddler, according to Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization.

No new suspected cases have been reported, he said, but WHO has warned that many people may have had "high-risk" contact with the girl, who was bleeding from her nose during the journey.


Associated Press writers Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali, Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea, and Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.


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