MONROVIA/FREETOWN (Reuters) - Liberian healthcare workers still plan to stage a go-slow, or work slowdown, to press demands for hazard pay on the front line of the Ebola epidemic, a union leader said on Monday.
The protest, announced last week, would come despite a plea from the U.N. health agency that the workers avoid industrial action.
Nearly 2,000 people have died from Ebola in Liberia out of at least 3,696 infected. The West African state is at the center of an epidemic that has killed more than 3,400 people there and in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The hemorrhagic virus has also taken a heavy toll on health workers and this has galvanized the National Health Workers Association of Liberia, said its secretary general George Williams.
“Let the government revisit health workers’ wages and allowances and make sure that they have insurance that is appropriate and proper,” he told Reuters, adding that the go-slow would begin on Friday unless union demands were met.
“Health workers have made up their minds. Some of these things have been on the table since April. The demands have to be met,” he said. The union represents thousands of workers, though it was unclear if all would heed its call to action.
Earlier, the representative of the World Health Organization in Liberia, Peter Graaff, said it was crucial that the workers did not undermine efforts to combat Ebola.
“My appeal to all the health workers is that you have been so brave to go and work in the ETU’s (Ebola Treatment Units). This is not the moment to compromise all that you have achieved,” Graaff told a news conference.
“Going slow means that those who want to work will have to work too hard and then put themselves at risk. Going slow means putting the lives for those you care for unnecessarily at risk,” he said, adding that there should be a negotiated solution.
There were signs of the potential global impact of the disease on Monday but also tentative evidence of progress in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
In the United States, the fifth American to contract Ebola in West Africa arrived for treatment while the first patient diagnosed with the deadly virus on U.S. soil was in critical condition at a Dallas hospital.
A Spanish nurse on Monday become the first person to contract Ebola outside of Africa, casting doubt over measures taken in Spain to control its spread.
At the same time, 46 Ebola patients were discharged on Monday from the first Ebola clinic in Freetown run exclusively by Sierra Leonean medics. They included 18 women, one of whom was Emma Kamara, 28, a nurse who is six months pregnant.
“I am very, very excited today. I cannot easily express myself. And I am sure my unborn child is even more excited and happy,” Kamara told Reuters at a ceremony. 13 children, some orphaned by the disease, were also declared fit.
President Ernest Koroma said the country needed 1,000 beds for Ebola patients in addition to the 400 it has currently but said the ceremony proved that citizens, rather than simply international health workers, could make a difference.
“People can come to assist us but they must find us helping ourselves”, he said, adding that foreign help was still needed.
Liberia’s assistant minister of Health for Preventive Services, Tolbert Nyensuwah, reported tentative signs that efforts by the government and the international community to respond to Ebola were starting to bear fruit.
The number of beds for Ebola patients have increased from 200 on Sept 1 to 570. There are now 14 testing laboratories as opposed to 4 at the start of last month, which allows for 500 specimens to be tested daily as opposed to 150, he said.
“We projected (a need for) 1,000 beds and we want to know why we still have empty beds. Is it that we are not taking care of the patients? Is it that the disease is gone, which we don’t want to say,” Nyensuwah told a news conference. He referred to Montserrado county, which includes the capital.
“If I show you the data from Lofa County, you will be astonished. It’s improving,” he said, speaking of a county in northern Liberia.
A hallmark of the epidemic has been treatment centers turning away ill people for lack of beds, thus increasing patient suffering and risking the spread of the virus through communities as families provide care.
The emergency coordinator for aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Liberia, Laurence Sailly, said that its treatment center, ELWA 3, in the capital Monrovia was not currently full.
“Up to yesterday (Sunday) we only had 120 patients so we still have beds for more patients. If people have Ebola in the community they can come to ELWA 3,” Sailly told a news conference.
Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Tom Brown