Guest Commentary

Jim Mitchum: Another medical crisis exists behind the Ebola epidemic in West Africa

Health workers in protective gear left after carrying the body of a woman that they suspected died from the Ebola virus in an area known as Clara Town in Monrovia, Liberia, earlier this month.
Health workers in protective gear left after carrying the body of a woman that they suspected died from the Ebola virus in an area known as Clara Town in Monrovia, Liberia, earlier this month. The Associated Press

The Ebola epidemic could become the Black Plague of modern times. The images and horror stories surrounding the most deadly outbreak of Ebola are compelling. Just last week, the president pledged to send 3,000 troops to help build emergency hospitals and provide medical supplies for West Africa.

The French medical charity Doctors Without Borders along with the California-based International Medical Corps have been providing most of the medical care for those infected with a disease that is spreading out of control and growing exponentially. Newest estimates are that the Ebola fight could take 12 to 18 months and the numbers of infected people could easily exceed 50,000. Death rates are reported to be in the 50-70 percent range depending on the strain and care available. It is a terrible crisis that requires enormous assistance from the developed world.

Hidden behind the chaos of Ebola is another and equally deadly problem — the lack of almost any medical care for millions of West Africans while the limited resources available are necessarily going to fight Ebola. In Liberia, the epicenter of the epidemic, it is reported that only 250 doctors remain alive to cover a population of 4 million souls. Of course, most of those remaining physicians are busy treating Ebola patients, leaving virtually no one to provide medical care for everyone else. In an equatorial region that has severe issues with AIDS, malaria and “normal” diseases, along with high mortality rates in childbirth, the death rates from non-Ebola medical needs could be as great as from Ebola itself. This is the hidden crisis within the crisis.

Let’s picture a place with twice the population of metropolitan Kansas City that has no available doctors. It staggers the imagination. Yet that is what is happening in just one country where Ebola is spreading and sucking all available medical resources away from the already medically deprived population. Similar problems are developing in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea.

We have a short period of time to stop this virus before it puts the rest of the world at risk. At the same time, we have a responsibility to respond to an overwhelming humanitarian crisis where millions of people are suffering from a lack of even the most fundamental medical care.

Heart to Heart International is a Kansas City-based medical crisis and relief organization, which is already responding to the needs of Ebola treatment with shipments of essential medical supplies to the region. In addition, our medical Advance Team left on Sunday for Monrovia, Liberia, to make arrangements for our volunteer teams of doctors and nurses who will soon deploy to take up some of the slack in the collapsing Liberian medical system.

Our experienced doctors and nurses have bravely volunteered to go into the hot zone of potential Ebola infection to treat those at greatest need. They’ve volunteered in crisis zones before — in Haiti, Joplin, the Philippines and so many more places. Now they are answering the call to go to West Africa.

We believe the lives of the people in the affected countries are worth saving. We also believe that Kansas Citians care. Please join us in this fight!

Jim Mitchum is chief executive officer of Heart to Heart International.

  Comments