Caritas Fights to Contain Ebola as Death Toll Tops 5000

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
11 Nov 2014

Paul O'Callaghan, CEO of Caritas Australia

Caritas Australia's CEO, Paul O'Callaghan has welcomed the Government's commitment of a further $20 million to set up and staff a field hospital in Sierra Leone. But he says more international aid is urgently needed in the battle against the deadly Ebola virus that has already claimed more than 5000 lives.

So far more than 10,000 men, women and children have been infected in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea with the World Health Organisation warning that this figure is rising sharply and by December could see as many as 10,000 new cases each week.

"The Ebola crisis is not just about a couple of countries in West Africa. It is a global issue," Paul says.

In a bid to halt to the spread of the virus, the US has sent 3000 military troops to West Africa to set up 17 treatment centres and train healthcare providers. Britain has also sent military medical teams and donated more than $400 million towards the fight to contain the disease. Europe has contributed as much as 1 billion Euros as well as personnel.

The scale of the Ebola emergency is much greater than the capacity of available facilities to treat the deadly virus

But even with the help of the NGOs on the ground such as Caritas Internationalis, the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres), Oxfam, Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services, far more is needed, Paul says.

"The scale of the need in West Africa continues to be much higher than the capacity of healthcare and medical facilities available," he says.

While the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response reports that the spread of the virus in Liberia may be improving, and that it also seems to be stable in Guinea, in Sierra Leone the number of those infected continues to escalate.

With only four Ebola Treatment Centres in Sierra Leona with a capacity of just 288 beds when the UN says at least 1864 beds are needed, leaving more than two thirds of new cases recorded over the past three weeks without treatment. The UN also suspects that more than 50 percent of cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone are not being reported, and warns that even with the commitment by Australia and other Western nations to set up Ebola Treatment Centres, the 10 planned fall short with a combined capacity of just 1333 beds.

The death toll from Ebola in West Africa is 5000 with a further 10,000 infected
with the virus

"Lack of available beds in Sierra Leone is forcing families to care for their loved ones at home, where caregivers are unable to adequately protect themselves from exposure, thereby increasing transmission risk of the virus," the UN warned late last week.

The latest outbreak of Ebola began in March this year. Western nations were slow to act to the crisis and it was not until August this year when more than 1900 had died that governments began donating money and medical personnel to West Africa to fight Ebola.

But from the beginning, Caritas Internationals together with Catholic priests, brothers, religious and missionaries are at the forefront of the battle against Ebola and on the ground in the poverty stricken West Africa.

With the World Health Organisation estimating that between 40% and 70% of all African healthcare infrastructure is the property of or managed by Catholic churches, Caritas and the Catholic Church have long cared for the poor and sick of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

For those living in rural and remote areas the only available healthcare has long been Catholic-run clinics which are operated by dedicated religious, brothers and local parishes.

Director of Monrovia's Catholic Hospital of St Joseph died of Ebola on 2 August this year

However as the Ebola crisis has escalated, West Africa's entire healthcare infrastructure has been stretched to breaking point. Liberia's Catholic Hospital of St Joseph in Monrovia, which has long been considered to be one of the best health facilities in the nation, was forced to close in August this year after the tragic deaths from Ebola of the Hospital's Director, Brother Patrick Nshamdze and eight staff members.

"These medical missionaries, and the local staff with whom they worked, gave their lives because they were committed to the medical oath of serving all sick people and of upholding the dignity of the human person from conception until natural death. For them the practice of medicine was not a 'business;' it was a vocation," says Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, the Rome-based special advisor to Caritas Internationalis and Head of the Caritas Delegation to the UN on HIV-Aids and Health.

Mons Vitillo recently returned from Liberia and reports that due to deaths from Ebola and fears of transmission of the virus, many other hospitals and clinics have had to close which he says has made it virtually impossible for local people to obtain treatment for any other medical emergency or disease.

Australia is financing a 240 bed Ebola Treatment Centre but many many more are needed

In addition, schools and most government offices have also closed their doors and in communities where quarantine has been imposed due to Ebola, the people have no access to food, clean water or other necessities.

"There is tremendous fear," says Paul O'Callaghan. Comparing feeling on the ground in West Africa's Ebola-affected areas with the panic triggered by the Black Death plague of the Middle Ages, he says local people are traumatised and terrified.

Caritas is providing psychological support to families, households and communities affected by Ebola as well as medical supplies, hygiene kits, education about the transmission of the virus via body fluids and raising money to reopen some of the hospitals that have had to close.

The Brothers of St John of God are in the process of reopening the Catholic Hospital of St Joseph in Monrovia but needs funds to do this as well as establish an Ebola Screening Centre.

Caritas Australia has launched an Africa Emergency Fund to help the fight against Ebola and to support the dedicated work of Caritas staff and volunteers on the ground in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. To donate log on to: