Nurses in the United States and around the world participated in a global day of action Wednesday, demanding better training and equipment to combat an Ebola epidemic that has resulted in more than 5,000 deaths.
A day ahead of the protests, America’s largest nurses union, National Nurses United (NNU), estimated that some 100,000 of its members would participate in strikes and vigils to highlight perceived failings in the national response to the Ebola threat.
Highlighting the battle health care workers face in combatting the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new figures Wednesday confirming that the Ebola death toll had ticked above 5,000.
As of the Nov. 9, the outbreak had resulted in 14,068 cases, 5,147 of which have been fatal. The vast majority had occurred in the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. In Sierra Leone, “steep increases” have been noted in recent weeks, the WHO said.
Thirteen deaths have occurred outside those three countries — in Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Spain and the U.S.
Nurses around the world have complained for months that hospitals expect them to treat infected patients with shoddy equipment and inadequate training. Health care workers in Sierra Leone also participated in the strike Wednesday. More than 400 staff at an Ebola treatment center in the country’s south walked out over unpaid risk allowances, officials said. Similar action has taken place in the past in Liberia, home to the greatest number of Ebola deaths.
Action in the U.S. comes a day after the last known patient being treated in the country for the disease was discharged from a New York hospital Ebola-free.
Out of four confirmed Ebola infections in the U.S. to date, two of them struck nurses at a Dallas hospital who had been treating Liberian patient Thomas Eric Duncan. NNU has lambasted both the hospital and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for mismanaging Duncan’s treatment and needlessly putting registered nurses at risk. Nurses say they were not provided with the protective gear required to ensure that they would not be exposed to Duncan's infection.
“We’ve been attempting to get hospitals in this country to actually hear the nurses’ concerns, and we’ve been told a lot of things that have been wrong,” said NNU Executive Director Roseanne DeMoro during an October conference call. “We’ve been lied to.”
Wednesday’s protests are expected to occur in Canada, Ireland, Spain, and the Philippines. In the U.S., nurses in 15 states are expected to participate, and the NNU is planning on staging a vigil outside the White House in Washington, D.C. Some 18,000 nurses in California are already on strike, having walked off the job on Tuesday.
The global protests coincide with Congress’s first day back in session after the 2014 midterms, and on the agenda will be U.S. preparedness to cope with the spread of the disease.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the government’s response to the epidemic. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has requested that Congress provide him with nearly $6.2 billion in additional funds to combat Ebola, both in the U.S. and at the center of the outbreak in West Africa.
“My foremost priority is to protect the health and safety of Americans, and this request supports all necessary steps to fortify our domestic health system and prevent any outbreaks at home,” wrote the president in a November 5 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Over the longer term, my Administration recognizes that the best way to prevent additional cases at home will be to contain and eliminate the epidemic at its source in Africa.”
The situation in Liberia and Guinea appears to stabilizing, amid evidence that case incidence is no longer increasing, the WHO said Wednesday.
But 421 new infections in Sierra Leone in the week ending on Nov. 9 have raised concern, as has new cases in Mali. Late last month, Mali reported that it had experienced its first confirmed case of Ebola, prompting fears of a wider spread. As of this week, three people in the West African country had died of the disease.