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Editorial: Keeping us safe

It’s a war, but there are no bugles, no banners, no medals for bravery.

In countless hospitals and clinics around the world, doctors, nurses and their staffs are battling disease, struggling to bring decent health care to people who may lack even basic requirements for daily living.

Malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, HIV, the list goes on and on.

More than one billion people around the world lack access to basic health care systems, and as a result, of the 56 million people who die each year globally of all causes, some 6.7 million die of infectious disease. The toll of children is particularly harsh. More than 7.5 million children under the age of 5 die from malnutrition and mostly preventable diseases.

Measles, for example, which can be prevented by a shot that costs less than a dollar, kills 164,000 people, mostly children under 5, in a given year.

In the front lines of this battle — unseen and ignored in developed countries like the U.S., which are wrapped up in squabbles about costs and insurance — are a small number of overworked and underpaid health care workers.

The other day, one of them contracted the very, very deadly disease he was working to control. Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, one of the world’s leading experts in the clinical care of viral hemorrhagic fevers, came down with Ebola — which typically kills 90 percent of those infected.

He was playing a key role in fighting an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, deep in the jungle nation. His and others’ efforts had succeeded in cutting the death rate to about 60 percent. Sierra Leone alone has had 427 confirmed cases of Ebola and 144 deaths, and the disease has also spread to Guinea and Liberia.

Khan had been working on another deadly disease, Lassa Fever, before Ebola struck, since his predecessor had died of that virus. Khan is being treated by the French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres and is said to be “responding to treatment.”

Meanwhile, two Americans, a doctor who was treating Ebola patients and an aid worker on a case management team, have tested positive for the virus. And the Liberian government said Sunday that one of its most high-profile doctors had died of Ebola. Once the virus takes hold, most victims die in an average of 10 days as the blood fails to clot and hemorrhaging occurs. The disease isn’t contagious until symptoms — which include fever, headache and fatigue — appear.

In this day of easy global airline travel, any disease outbreak anywhere in the world is a cause of concern, even thousands of miles away.

Khan and his peers are our first line of defense — and they’re dying while trying to contain this awful disease.

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