Workers tasked with burying deceased Ebola patients in Sierra Leone took drastic action this week in a dispute over pay, abandoning the bodies of 15 Ebola victims in the street.
Several bodies were paraded at the entrance to a hospital on Monday in an effort to stop people from entering. Another body was placed outside the entrance to a hospital administrator’s office.
According to local health officials, burial workers dumped a total of 15 bodies — including those of two babies — at the hospital in Kenama, the country’s third-largest city. The workers, employed by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health, have gone on strike because they say they are owed seven weeks of their “hazard” pay of $100 a week.
Burying Ebola victims is a dangerous task; the deadly virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids, and contagiousness peaks at the time of death, when the viral load — the amount of virus in the body — is at its highest.
Burial teams working for the Red Cross, rather than the state, were called in to remove the bodies, which were all cleared as of late Tuesday.
Authorities acknowledged the risk allowances had not been paid but said that all the striking members of the Ebola Burial Team would be dismissed.
Sidi Yahya Tunis, the spokesman for the National Ebola Response Center, told the BBC that the workers had been fired not for striking, but for treating the corpses in a “completely unacceptable” manner he described as “very, very inhumane”.
Healthcare workers have repeatedly gone on strike in Liberia and Sierra Leone over pay and dangerous working conditions. Two weeks ago, workers walked off the job at a clinic in Sierra Leone’s Bo district.
Sierra Leone has become the biggest hotspot in the West African Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 5,600 people since March.
The outbreak appears to be coming under control in much of neighboring Liberia and Guinea, but infection rates have accelerated in Sierra Leone. Nearly one-fifth of Sierra Leone’s total cases of Ebola were reported in a three-week period that ended Sunday (Nov. 23), according to new figures released by the World Health Organization.
The WHO said this week that the total number of cases reported in Sierra Leone — 6,599 — will soon surpass the 7,168 cases reported in Liberia.
On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Dr. Komba Songu M’Briwa, the doctor who treated Martin Salia — the Maryland-based Sierra Leonean surgeon who died of Ebola last week after being transported to Omaha — has contracted the disease himself.
M’Briwa’s diagnosis makes him the ninth doctor in the country infected with the virus. On Tuesday, health authorities confirmed that another Sierra Leonean doctor, Aiah Solomon Konoyeima, had tested positive for the disease. All Sierra Leonean doctors who have previously caught Ebola have died of it.
Also this week, the head of a special UN mission on Ebola acknowledged on Monday it would not meet the target of having 70 percent of Ebola patients isolated and 70 percent of Ebola victims safely buried as of Dec. 1.
Despite pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, and the deployment of US and British troops, the weakness of healthcare systems and infrastructure in the affected countries has hampered the fight against the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus on record.