October 23, 2014

"You can't put out 99% of a forest fire. You have to put it all out."

Daniel Bausch, Ebola Doctor

For almost twenty years Dr. Daniel Bausch — director of the Emerging Infections Department at the U.S. Naval Medical Research facility in Peru — has been back and forth to West Africa, treating cases of hemorrhagic fever caused by Ebola and viruses like it (Lassa and Marburg among them). Bausch may know Ebola, up-close and personal, better than any American doctor working today.

This time, he says, it’s worse than ever before. In Sierra Leone and Guinea, medical teams he helped assemble have been hollowed out by the disease. Among the lost is Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, the veteran chief physician at the Kenema Clinic, whom Bausch himself had hired for the job ten years earlier. Bausch believes he left Sierra Leone the same day this Spring that Dr. Khan began to show symptoms of Ebola; he died in July.

Bausch saw doctors and nurses getting sick, leading to a collapse of morale and a swamped ward. At one stretch Drs. Bausch and Khan were alone, shoulder-to-shoulder, tending to a ward full of sixty or so Ebola patients. I asked him about Dr. Khan, whose heroic fight and calm death sounds like something right out of a novel.  Like the humanist Dr. Rieux, to be precise, in Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague.  Dr. Bausch told me he was re-reading Camus’ masterpiece through the Ebola tribulations in West Africa this fall of 2014.

Bausch believed at one moment this spring that the spread of the disease had been contained, but he told us it’s proof that “you can’t put out 99 percent of a forest fire — you have to put it all out.”

Still he’s hopeful that we’re getting the message in the West: we need to try harder to bring the best of modern medicine to the world’s poorest corners. West Africa, he said, will need the Marshall-Plan treatment after its long war with Ebola finally comes to a close.

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