January 6, 2015 / 6:44 PM / 3 years ago

Ebola volunteers should be praised, not stigmatized: UK charities

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Volunteer medics returning to Britain after fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa face unfounded stigma that can be made worse by official safety guidelines, charities said on Tuesday.

"These people are putting their lives at risk and instead of being appreciated many of them are facing unfounded stigma on their return," said Sarah Wilson, communication manager for Ebola response at World Vision.

"They should be lauded when they come back home… not discouraged from volunteering."

The guidelines, issued by Public Health England, include restrictions on the activities of returning medics, such as using public transport and returning to work.

"We are concerned that adding additional protocols for health workers to follow on their return to the UK could ... contribute to the stigmatization they face," said John English, Ebola Response Programme Manager at the British Red Cross.

Professor Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director at PHE, said the restrictions were designed to reduce the possibility of returning volunteers developing Ebola symptoms in a situation where they cannot quickly get medical help.

A volunteer for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, receives training on how to handle personal protective equipment during courses in Brussels October 15, 2014, which is aimed to help deal with the Ebola disease in West Africa.Francois Lenoir

"The principles behind this guidance are to ensure that returning workers have a reasonable degree of freedom for normal activities balanced against the need for them to be able to rapidly seek medical help should they develop any symptoms," he said.

Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have borne the brunt of the 20,000 infections and nearly 8,000 deaths since the current Ebola outbreak was first identified in remote southeast Guinea in early 2014.

British volunteers are among hundreds of foreign medics who have gone to the three countries to help local medical staff overwhelmed by the outbreak, the worst ever recorded.

Last week, British nurse Pauline Cafferkey, who had been working in Sierra Leone with Save the Children, became the first person to be diagnosed with the disease in Britain, shortly after her return from West Africa.

Travel restrictions were not relevant to Cafferkey's case, Wilson said. "People are not contagious until they are too sick with the disease to get out of bed, let alone use public transportation," she said.

Cafferkey, 39, is in a stable but critical condition at the Royal Free Hospital in London. She is being treated with blood plasma from an anonymous Ebola survivor and an experimental anti-viral drug.

Last year the hospital, Britain's main center for Ebola cases, successfully treated British nurse William Pooley with the experimental drug ZMapp after he became infected with the Ebola virus while working in Sierra Leone.

Reporting by Liisa Tuhkanen; Editing by Tim Pearce

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