Ebola’s Victims: Not Just Those it Infects

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By: Katie Millar, Technical Writer, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Ebola’s victims are not just the people it infects, and eventually kills, but anyone who needs to access the health system in Sierra Leona, Liberia, and Guinea – especially women.

The current Ebola outbreak has proven deadly. Starting in March of this year in Guinea, it has now infected 2,615 people, killing 1,427 – 55-75% of them womenGender roles place women as caretakers administering to the sick, increasing their risk for infection. Attention to gender dynamics and how they affect transmission, care-seeking, and treatment is vital, and so far mostly ignored. Lack of attention to gender differences results in continued disparities and unnecessary deaths. Professor Wafaa El-Sadr told Foreign Policy last week that who dies in an outbreak “shows you who has power and who doesn’t. In a way, it holds a mirror to society. And it shows societies how they treat each other.”

Ebola’s impact goes beyond infections and deaths. The outbreak has demanded much of the affected countries’ health resources. Health facilities—poorly prepared and lacking gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE)—are now contaminated and seen as harbors of infection, resulting in abandoned health facilities and hospitals around West Africa.

When a woman is pregnant and needs care, lack of maternity services can mean disaster for both her and her baby. Stories in the last few weeks chronicle accounts of women with labor complications seeking services, offering small fortunes for care, only to be turned away, ignored. The result? Death.

And these are just deaths from direct causes. Indirect causes like infectious diseases—such as, malaria, typhoid, and others—are left untreated. In addition, fear and suspicion of the Ebola outbreak has led to patients refusing injections, avoiding health facilities, distrusting health care workers, even doubting the Ebola outbreak is real.

While some clinics are reopening, they still face challenges including nervous staff and scarce resources. PPE—the full-body suits that protect health care workers from the virus—have to be rationed carefully as they are expensive and limited, forcing health care workers into difficult decisions. When one woman from an Ebola hot spot needed a c-section in Monrovia’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, health care workers were forced to weigh the implications of using 12 PPE suits for the procedure. Saving the woman’s life could endanger hospital staff by placing them at risk of infection while caring for patients in the future.

The Ebola outbreak has caused significant problems, and not just for those infected. Poor health systems—weakened by the outbreak—mean women are especially at risk for infection, poor birth outcomes, and death.

Read more about Ebola implications for maternal health: