AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein said Thursday that U.S. and world health officials have failed to respond to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa to the point of being “criminally negligent.” The comments come after a doctor involved with the organization died from the disease while fighting it on the front lines in Sierra Leone, the country hardest hit by the outbreak.
Weinstein, on a call with reporters, spoke on the issue in the wake of the death of Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, 39, a celebrated physician who helped lead efforts to fight the outbreak in Sierra Leone and worked as part of AHF’s Sierra Leone Country Program and its free AIDS treatment clinic. Khan fell ill after being infected with the virus late last month and then died about a week later, according to CNN.
“Governments did not respond and let it get out of control,” Weinstein said, adding that the outbreak is similar to how governments responded to the AIDS epidemic when it emerged decades ago. Weinstein said that the legacies of people like Khan should be that “we wake up and realize how vulnerable the world community is. It would make their deaths have greater meaning.”
Khan’s eldest brother, Sahid Khan, told reporters that his brother was one of the few doctors to remain in Sierra Leone and is responsible for saving numerous lives. Sierra Leone’s president even declared Khan a national hero, crediting him with saving over 100 people who were infected, USA Today reports.
“Once Ebola broke out on the front line, there were no doctors to help,” he said. “Those that were there left the scene. He refused to leave the place because he said as the doctor that is responsible for these cases, he refused to leave and was working 12 hour shifts seven days a week.”
Another of Khan’s brothers, Alhajie Khan, said there were unsuccessful attempts to fly Khan out of the country for treatment of the disease to Geneva, Germany, and then South Africa. At one point, a plane was waiting to take Khan to South Africa, but the plane was apparently not equipped enough to support him and he was too unstable, Alhajie Khan said.
Two Americans were airlifted to the United States for treatment after contracting the virus. Asked by a reporter on the call if he believes there was a double standard, Sahid Khan, said he thinks “it’s tough to answer that question because we never know. We’re not there on the ground. There are other issues involved.” Weinstein, however, said, “It doesn’t even rise to a ‘double standard’ because nobody cared before the Americans were infected.”
Weinstein also said that experimental treatment, such as a serum recently used to treat the two Americans who picked up the virus in Liberia, should have been made available in the countries impacted by the outbreak. Weinstein has become known for his, at times, controversial statements regarding HIV/AIDS, particularly in opposition to a relatively new method of HIV prevention, or pre-exposure phrophylaxis (PrEP). AHF is the largest HIV/AIDS healthcare organization in the world, serving over 320,000 in 34 countries.
More than 930 people have died and more than 1,700 people have been infected with the virus in West Africa, with a majority of those cases occurring in Sierra Leone, according to numbers from the World Health Organization on Aug. 6.
Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, acknowledged in a statement last week that the Ebola virus is “is moving faster than our efforts to control it” and that, as a result, the outbreak could be “catastrophic,” according to CNN.