Doctors resort to ‘MacGyver medicine’ in Ebola countries

2014-10-14 15:38

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Lack of equipment in Ebola-stricken countries is forcing doctors to improvise as they try to administer healthcare.

“I had to do a blood transfusion on a child using a syringe,” Medicines Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) paediatrician Dr Julia Switala told reporters in Joburg today.

“I have seen and done things I never thought I would do. It felt like I was doing MacGyver medicine,” she said referring to the resourceful television character.

Switala was among a group of four doctors sharing their experiences of being at the centre of the outbreak and the fight against the virus.

Switala spent four months in Sierra Leone. She had initially worked at a children’s hospital that had to be changed to an Ebola centre due to the high rate of infections and transmission of the virus.

At least 18 South African doctors working for MSF have been assigned to work in West Africa as part of MSF’s international Ebola response.

According to French news agency Agence France-Presse, the Ebola virus outbreak has already killed more than 4 000 people, mostly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Underfunded health systems in West Africa have been crippled by the virus, which has spiralled out of control and infected 7 400 people since the beginning of the year.

Switala described the problems doctors faced in the three countries. Apart from the lack of resources, cultural practices were contributing to the spread of the virus.

“Cultural practices make it very difficult to manage the outbreak. Funerals there involve a lot of touching,” she said.

Switala added that communities were gripped by fear. She described her experience in Sierra Leone as being like a waiter on the sinking Titanic.

“One moment you want to serve the soup hot while at the same time the water is up to your knees and you have to scoop it out,” she said.

She questioned the number of deaths being reported and said it could be higher. Switala added that with many families living in fear and hiding bodies, it was difficult to ascertain the correct figure.

“If it is 4 000 people, think about the people that they have come into contact with,” she said.

Switala also spoke about the tough decisions they had to make while working in West Africa.

She said some hospitals were abandoned by staff and patients for fear of Ebola. She said they kept on working but the risk of transmission during emergency births, where there was bleeding, was high.

“Ebola has also meant our team had to take the toughest decision yet – to stop resuscitating children because the risk is too great of a potentially Ebola-sickened child’s vomit or saliva infecting the few nurses and doctors.”

She said the world had to unite and called on South Africans to assist in the fight against the spread of the virus.

Until Ebola could be brought under control, other medical conditions would remain unattended.

“We have to beat Ebola first before we can get back to dealing with the massive health problems,” she said.

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