The Ebola virus continues to strike people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since May, the World Health Organization has counted 72 confirmed, probable or suspected cases and 32 deaths.
As usual, a disproportionate share of those cases are health care workers — 23 of them, almost a third.
That's because, despite elaborate protective garb and other precautions, it's very hard for doctors, nurses and health aides to avoid virus-laden bodily fluids of Ebola patients or accidental needle sticks. That's especially true at the beginning of an outbreak, when Ebola symptoms might be mistaken for malaria or something else.
"The repeating story is always that here's incredible incidence among health care workers," says Peter Jahrling of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, an expert on Ebola and similarly lethal viruses. "It's usually the medical staff that bears the brunt of it."
Apart from the tragedy of caregiver deaths, this has a ripple effect that helps keep an outbreak going.
Dr. Armand Sprecher of Doctors Without Borders says that's because when health workers don moon suits and avoid all unnecessary contact with Ebola victims, that reinforces the community perception that the hospital is just the place people go to die.
"If you don't hang IV lines and do things that look medical, if you just put people in beds and walk around in protective gear and don't touch anybody, well, why would they want to come there?" Sprecher said in an interview with Shots from the Doctors Without Borders operations center in Brussels.
The perception is only fueled when people see health care workers die of Ebola in hospitals.
"We have a horrible time marketing our treatment unit because patients are not seeing a benefit to come in when we don't produce a lot of survivors," Sprecher says.
And if infected people stay away from hospitals, that just allows the virus to spread out in the community.
But the grim truth is doctors can't do anything for Ebola patients except give them fluids and other supportive care. What's needed, Sprecher says, is an effective treatment.