After months of seeing almost no qualified doctors volunteer to help treat infected Ebola victims in West Africa, physicians are now signing up in droves, but it may be too late, experts say.
The outbreak, which has claimed more than 3,000 lives, was deemed an "unprecedented epidemic" back in March, but critical health care workers didn’t heed the call, which was a major reason why the virus couldn’t be contained. While physicians are now stepping up in a bolstering way, experts say there will be a considerable delay before these volunteers can make a noticeable difference.
"As a result [of the delay] thousands of people will die," Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, told The New York Times. "I can’t say the exact figure because we don’t know how many unreported cases there are. But thousands for sure."
The virus could eventually infect as many as 20,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.
But enough physicians have come forward that Doctors Without Borders, the nonprofit that has been leading the charge in combating the outbreak, recently announced that it no longer needs any more volunteers. The news came on the heels of a troubling statement Liu made earlier this month when she said that the organization was "overwhelmed" and "at a loss" as to how it was supposed to shoulder so much of the responsibility in addressing the crisis.
The group now has 239 international volunteers and operates six facilities in three countries, according to The Times.
Still, it will take a considerable amount of time before these doctors can hit the ground running.
Volunteers first have to get permission to take six weeks off, secure visas and undergo specialized training.
In Liberia alone, which was the hardest-hit country, 40,000 community workers need to be trained, Reuters reported.
Besides the dearth in capable health care workers, the affected areas are also in dire need of more beds and medical supplies.
And while major donors have ramped up their efforts in recent weeks, advocates on the ground are desperate for more help.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently pledged $50 million, its largest donation to a humanitarian cause, to buy medical equipment and increase emergency operations. The World Bank donated $200 million and the United States is deploying 3,000 military personnel to build treatment centers and train local medics.
Another major holdup, though, is the fact that even hefty donations don’t stretch very far in this grave climate.
"You've probably heard the stories that are coming out of major donors that we'll build a hospital and we'll spend a million dollars but it will only be 25 beds," Christopher Dye, U.N. strategy chief, told Reuters. "Well, great, thanks guys for the help but we need more than 25 beds here. So let's take the 25 but how are we going to talk about not tens of beds but hundreds of beds which is what we're going to need."