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As Ebola spreads, health care workers take the brunt

| Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, 8:09 p.m.

DAKAR, Senegal — A surge in Ebola infections in Liberia is driving a spiraling outbreak in West Africa that is increasingly putting health workers at risk as they struggle to treat an overwhelming number of patients.

A higher proportion of health workers has been infected in this outbreak than in any previous one. The latest infection was of a doctor with the World Health Organization treating patients in Sierra Leone. The organization gave no details, but an American — unidentified by hospital officials — who became infected while working in West Africa landed in the United States on Tuesday to get treatment at Emory University Hospital.

This is the second WHO staffer to be infected in Sierra Leone, and the U.N. health agency said that after an investigation of the first case, staffers battling Ebola there now have better working conditions — including larger, more private quarters.

The outbreak gripping West Africa is thought to have killed more than 2,200 people, and public health experts agree that it is out of control. More than 4,200 people have believed to have been sickened in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.

The disease is spreading particularly quickly in Liberia, where WHO figures published Tuesday showed that more than 500 new cases were recorded in a week. The organization warned on Monday that it expects thousands of new cases in the country in the coming weeks.

Sierra Leone said it is expecting to uncover potentially hundreds of new cases during a three-day nationwide lockdown later this month. While people are confined to their homes, thousands of volunteers will go house to house to search for those infected, Sidie Yahya Tunis, a Health Ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday.

Health workers in Liberia have paid a heavy toll; 160 have been sickened in that country, and 80 have died, according to Karin Landgren, the U.N. envoy to the country. Health workers are at particular risk because of their close contact with the sick since Ebola is only spread by contact with bodily fluids of those who have symptoms.

A shortage of doctors and nurses to care for these patients is being exacerbated by the sheer number of health workers becoming infected. But that shortage may also be the reason they are getting infected, experts say.

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