Dr. Sheik Umar Khan has been the man behind the fight against Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, Africa. The 39-year-old doctor has been heralded as the champion in what is the largest Ebola outbreak in history, treating more than 100 patients and working tirelessly to try and quell the epidemic.
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According to global reports, however, it appears Khan has himself caught the virus. The Sierra Leone government issued a statement indicating the doctor is Kailahun, being treated at an isolation ward run by Doctors Without Borders.
It is not immediately clear how Khan caught the Ebola virus; colleagues of his told Reuters the doctor always followed strict sanitation methods, wearing overalls, mask, gloves and special footwear. Staff at the hospital were concerned about the facility conditions, though, telling NPR, “The rest of the nurses went on strike on Monday because they were concerned about the conditions in the hospital. They felt that they weren’t getting the equipment they need to protect themselves from the virus.”
Ebola transmission from human to human occurs from close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of those infected. The World Health Organization indicates: “Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola. Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to 7 weeks after recovery from illness.”
Several nurses working in the same Ebola treatment centers as was Khan died from the virus several days prior. As they became overwhelmed with Ebola cases, it’s possible keeping up with sanitation became a issue within the facility.
“That hospital has had huge problems,” says NPR reporter Jason Beaubien, who was in Sierra Leone covering the outbreak there. “At least eight nurses got infected with Ebola just over a week ago. That indicates severe problems with infection control.”
But Khan is still considered a national hero by those in Sierra Leone, and the country is hold its breath as they wait for news on his condition.
“He is a very respected medical professional in the country,” Meredith Dyson, a health worker with in Freetown, Sierra Leone, told NPR. “Everybody here in Sierra Leone is praying for him right now.”
Khan spent years in Sierra Leone studying and treating another viral disease, called Lassa fever, which causes symptoms similar to Ebola. When the Ebola outbreak became known; however, Khan immediately turned his attention and resources toward helping those who needed medical aid.
The doctor also made it known that he understood the risks of working so closely with Ebola patients. “I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life,” he told Reuters in June. “Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk.”