Protect healthcare workers fighting outbreaks

Preparing to enter Ebola treatment unit
Preparing to enter Ebola treatment Copyright: Athalia Christie, CDC Global/ CC BY 2.0

Speed read

  • The new coronavirus (COVID-19) is claiming the lives of healthcare workers
  • Similar disease outbreaks including Ebola have also killed healthcare workers in the line of duty
  • Governments and others must invest in protecting the lives of healthcare workers

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Protect healthcare workers from dying from disease outbreaks while in the line of duty, urges Ifeanyi M. Nsofor.

The continuing Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is a reminder that healthcare workers are in the line of fire when responding to infectious disease outbreaks and we must ensure that they are protected.

Li Wenliang sounded an alarm about a Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like viral infections while working at China’s Wuhan Central Hospital as a physician but the authorities did not believe him. Instead, he was hounded by the police to stop “making false comments”, and now he’s dead from the same virus he was concerned about – the new Coronavirus.
As of yesterday (17 February), the virus which Wenliang so desperately wanted authorities to investigate had 58,182 cases and killed 1,696 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Healthcare workers under threat

Wenliang is not the only healthcare worker who has died while managing others infected by dangerous viruses and other germs. Already this year, both Usman Kalthum, a young medical doctor undergoing his internship training, and Habiba Musa, a consultant anaesthesiologist, died after attending to a patient with Lassa fever at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital in Kano, North-west Nigeria.

“During infectious disease outbreaks, the risks of infection and death are higher. We must protect healthcare workers.”

Ifeanyi M. Nsofor

In 2018, Lini Puthussery, a 28-year-old nurse died after attending to a family of three who were infected with the Nipah virus in India's Southern state of Kerala. Also in 2018, Ahmed Victor Idowu, a young intern doctor died after attending to an infant who presented high fever at the Federal medical Centre in Kogi State, North-central Nigeria. He died of Lassa fever.
In 2014, Stella Adadevoh and four other health workers at First Consultant Medical Centre in Lagos, South-west Nigeria died after they helped the Liberian who came to Nigeria while infected with Ebola virus. Their sacrifice ensured Ebola did not spread further in Nigeria.  
The world must be reminded that healthcare workers are usually the first ones to encounter an infected person, attend to them and provide care. During infectious disease outbreaks, the risks of infection and death are higher. We must protect healthcare workers.

Ways to protect healthcare workers

We must believe healthcare workers when they raise alarm about the likelihood of an infection. They are trained to display a high degree of suspicion when cases present at hospitals.
Most viral infections and haemorrhagic fevers have symptoms which resemble those of common illnesses. For instance, symptoms of the new COVID-19 include fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure and even death. Thus, healthcare workers are trained to always be on their guard and ensure they rule out such infections when they treat patients.  

“No healthcare worker should die while saving lives.”

Ifeanyi M. Nsofor

Going forward, governments and public health authorities must investigate the concerns raised by healthcare workers to ascertain the truth. If the Chinese government had responded positively to Wenliang concerns, he could still be alive today and China could have responded more efficiently to the new COVID-19. 
Governments must also provide conducive working environments and equipment for healthcare workers. When there is an infectious disease outbreak, health workers need personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves to provide care to patients. Healthcare workers also need soap and running water in hospitals to wash their hands. Unfortunately, 35 per cent of healthcare facilities in low- and middle-income countries lack water and soap for handwashing, according to the World Health Organization. This predisposes healthcare workers to being infected and could lead to their death.
In a 2018 survey on emigration of Nigerian doctors conducted by Nigeria Health Watch and NOI Polls, reasons for emigration include poor working environment and lack of proper infrastructure. Thus, recommendations to mitigate emigration by the doctors include provision of good working environment, upgrade of all hospitals and equipment for better service delivery. 
Governments, donors and the private sector must invest in continuous professional development for healthcare workers. One way to achieve this is to ensure every donor-funded health programme includes training for health workers to increase their capacity and bring them up to date on new information and new ways of providing care. Further, healthcare workers must also avail themselves of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platforms such as Coursera to improve knowledge while on the job. Such MOOCs are the future of education and most courses are free. 
Lastly, the public health advisory for the new COVID-19 sent out by national public health institutes stipulates that health workers must observe standard infection prevention and control measures and take travel history when attending to patients. Adhering to this advisory is now a matter of life and death for patients and healthcare workers. 

Wenliang has joined the ranks of healthcare workers who paid the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe. His death should not be in vain. We must protect all healthcare workers form suffering the same fate. No healthcare worker should die while saving lives. 
Ifeanyi M. Nsofor, is a medical doctor, a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the CEO of EpiAFRIC and director of Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch. He is a senior Atlantic fellow for health equity at the George Washington University, a senior new voices fellow at the Aspen Institute and a 2006 International Ford Fellow. You can follow Nsofor on Twitter @ekemma.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


[1]  Emigration of Nigerian medical doctors: survey report (NOIPolls and Nigeria Health Watch, 2018)
[2] Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 28  (WHO, 17 February, 2020)