'I felt like I was doing MacGyver medicine': MSF doctor


Lack of equipment in Ebola-stricken countries is forcing doctors to improvise as they try to administer much needed healthcare, Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF -- Doctors Without Borders) staff said on Tuesday. "I had to do a blood transfusion on a child using a syringe," paediatrician Dr Julia Switala told reporters in Johannesburg. "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.

'Cultural practices make it very difficult to manage the outbreak. Funerals there involve a lot of touching'

Switala said she spent four months in Sierra Leone where she had initially worked at a children's hospital which 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 4000 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 7400 people since the beginning of the year.

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.

She 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 4000 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 Ebola 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.

Medical team leader Jens Pedersen who spent four weeks in Monrovia, Liberia, said doctors were overwhelmed by what they experienced.

He said as much as they tried to curb the spread of the virus, they always found themselves two steps behind.

He spoke about the frustrations experienced by doctors.

"Everything takes longer. It takes two to three times to do anything as compared to a hospital," he said.

He appealed to all the people who made promises to make available funds and resources to keep their promise to ensure the outbreak was brought under control.


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