Angolan hospitals unable to cope with yellow fever epidemic

Family members of people with yellow fever wait in line to give their blood. Photo sent by our Observer.
Family members of people with yellow fever wait in line to give their blood. Photo sent by our Observer.

The situation in Luanda’s hospitals is dire as the yellow fever epidemic continues to ravage the Angolan capital. Our Observers described patients and family members crowding hospital corridors as they wait to see a doctor. For many patients, help comes too late and there are also long queues of grieving family members waiting in front of the city’s morgues. Our Observer, who is a doctor at a local hospital, says the hospitals are unable to cope with the crisis.

A yellow fever epidemic has swept Angola since the end of December, according to the World Health Organisation. The epicentre of the epidemic is Luanda, which has been covered with piles of rubbish for months, since authorities ran out of money to pay for trash collection, citing the financial crisis sweeping the country. In the past weeks, several of our Observers had reached out to us to express their fears that the unsanitary conditions would allow diseases to spread in the city. Unfortunately, their worst fears have come true.

"Every day, there are hundreds of people in hospital hallways"

Antonio L. is a doctor at Boa Vida Hospital in Luanda.

Every day, there are hundreds of people who fill hospital hallways, just waiting for treatment. Because we are so short-staffed, many medical students have been volunteering in the hospitals.

Since December, multiple epidemics have broken out – not just yellow fever, but also dengue fever and malaria. All these illnesses are spread by mosquitoes, and that isn’t a coincidence. The unsanitary conditions in the city and the heavy rains have allowed their population to expand exponentially.

In 2004, the government launched a programme to fight mosquitos, but with the financial crisis, the funding for this programme dried up. One of the main things that this programme did was to distribute mosquito nets to the population.

Young people – children and young adults up to the age of 20 – are most at risk because their immune systems aren’t fully developed. We’ve had these diseases in Angola for a long time but it’s been a while since we’ve faced a crisis at this level. We haven’t had a major one since a cholera epidemic in the early 2000s.

"The yellow fever vaccination campaign is completely disorganised"

I don’t think the Angolan government has worked enough to raise awareness amongst the population about the importance of vaccines, like the yellow fever vaccine.

The World Health Organisation first recorded a resurgence of this disease in January but the government has only just launched a vaccination campaign. It’s not just late, it’s also very disorganised. Many hospitals don’t have enough vaccines and the queues are extremely long.

In the hospitals, we are facing a shortage of both personnel and the materials we need to treat everyone. Some families end up waiting all day in the hallways. The long waiting times mean that many people prefer to stay at home, even if they are sick. So by the time they come to the hospital, they are often in critical condition or it is too late.

My fellow doctors and I estimate that at least 50 people, many of them very young, are dying every day in Luanda’s hospitals. The daily newspaper O Pais ran a frontpage story on Tuesday, March 22 titled "500 people buried in Luanda last Saturday". This number isn’t surprising; last week was the worst we’ve seen.

"The hospitals are out of blood and doctors are asking families to donate”

Our Observer Alexandre S sent us several photos from Boa Vida hospital in Luanda.

The people who you see in my photos are waiting their turn to give blood.

Waiting to give blood at Boa Vida Hospital. Photo by Observer Alexandre S.

When I went there, it was 11pm and some of the people there told me that they had been waiting since morning. Everyone there was hoping to save a family member by giving blood. Yellow fever causes anaema and haemorrages, but the hospitals are out of blood. The doctors have started asking families to go and donate blood.

People wait to give blood in the Boa Vida Hospital. Photo by Observer Alexandre S.

As the photos show, we were all feeling both exhausted and hopeless. Only one nurse was there to draw blood from us, one-by-one.