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Ebola health workers battle death, heat, rumors

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In this undated handout photo provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres, local staff and healthcare workers for Doctors Without Borders, exit an isolation ward in Guekedou, Guinea. For doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in West Africa, working in head-to-toe protective gear in muddy health clinics is often the least of their problems, as many also struggle to convince people they are there to stop Ebola, not spread it. (AP Photo/MSF)

In this undated handout photo provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres, local staff and healthcare workers for Doctors Without Borders, exit an isolation ward in Guekedou, Guinea. For doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in West Africa, working in head-to-toe protective gear in muddy health clinics is often the least of their problems, as many also struggle to convince people they are there to stop Ebola, not spread it. (AP Photo/MSF)

In this undated handout photo provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres, local staff and healthcare workers for Doctors Without Borders, wear Ebola protection equipment in Liberia. For doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in West Africa, working in head-to-toe protective gear in muddy health clinics is often the least of their problems, as many also struggle to convince people they are there to stop Ebola, not spread it. (AP Photo/MSF)

In this July 2014 handout photo provided by Doctors Without Borders, Monia Sayah, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders stands in the low-risk zone of an Ebola isolation facility in Conakry, Guinea. For doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in West Africa, working in head-to-toe protective gear in muddy health clinics is often the least of their problems, as many also struggle to convince people they are there to stop Ebola, not spread it. (AP Photo/MSF, Sandra Smiley)

In this undated handout photo provided by Doctors Without Borders, Cokie van der Velde, a British sanitation specialist for Doctors Without Borders is seen in Guekedou, Guinea. Normally, she spends her days in Yorkshire, tending to her garden and looking after her grandchildren. Van der Velde has worked on two previous Ebola outbreaks _ she gets paid a salary and stipend _ and says she does this kind of work because she believes in justice and equality. She said the need is overwhelming in this outbreak because of the heavy toll Ebola has taken on health workers; many of those sickened and killed have been doctors and nurses. That has sparked fear among many local staffers and led to strikes and resignations. (AP Photo/MSF)

In this undated handout photo provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres, Cokie van der Velde, a British sanitation specialist for Doctors Without Borders is seen in head-to-toe protective gear in Guekedou, Guinea. Normally, she spends her days in Yorkshire, tending to her garden and looking after her grandchildren. Van der Velde has worked on two previous Ebola outbreaks _ she gets paid a salary and stipend _ and says she does this kind of work because she believes in justice and equality. She said the need is overwhelming in this outbreak because of the heavy toll Ebola has taken on health workers; many of those sickened and killed have been doctors and nurses. That has sparked fear among many local staffers and led to strikes and resignations. (AP Photo/MSF)

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LONDON (AP) — Doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in West Africa are working 14-hour days, seven days a week, wearing head-to-toe gear in the heat of muddy clinics. Agonizing death is the norm. The hellish conditions aren’t the only problem: Health workers struggle to convince patients they’re trying to help them, not hurt them.

Rumors are rife that Western aid workers are importing Ebola, stealing bodies or even deliberately infecting patients. Winning trust is made harder by a full suit of hood, goggles, mask and gown that hides their faces.

“You want to say so much … because they’re in so much pain,” said nurse Monia Sayah, of Doctors Without Borders. “They suffer so much, but they can only see your eyes.”

The outbreak has hit three of the world’s poorest countries, where health systems there were already woefully understaffed and ill-equipped. In Liberia, there is only one doctor for every 100,000 people, while in Sierra Leone there are two, according to the World Health Organization; there were no statistics available for Guinea. The figure is 245 for the United States.

Emotional distress conspires with exhaustion and dehydration, but doctors say it’s hard to stop working. “When the need is so great, you can’t justify not being there for a day or going home earlier,” said Dr. Robert Fowler, who recently worked in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

The critical care doctor at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada — now on sabbatical with the World Health Organization — said that the barrier of the protective suit is big but not insurmountable.

“There was a young girl, about 6, who came in late in the illness who was bleeding from her bowels, very dehydrated and delirious,” he said. Ebola wiped out her immediate family — so she was all alone.

“She was very frightened and very reluctant to engage, and just wanted to push people away,” he said. Fowler spent days trying to help her, bringing her things she wanted like Fanta soda. “She eventually developed this sense that this person in the suit who’s a bit scary is trying to help me.”

One day he brought the girl her favorite dish: cucumbers and lime. “She chowed down,” he said — a sign that she was on the mend. Fowler said the girl was close to being discharged by the time he left Guinea.

The girl is the exception rather than the rule. Death is the fate of more than half of the West Africans infected in the Ebola outbreak.

“With the mortality rate being what it is,” Fowler said, “you know every day there will be a couple of patients on your ward who didn’t make it through the night.”

Dr.

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