Ebola and Sierra Leone
In 2012 my husband, Dom, also a VTS trainee, and I worked for a year in Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone with Voluntary Service Overseas. When the first cases of Ebola reached Sierra Leone in March 2014 Kenema district was badly affected. Over 30 doctors, nurses and laboratory staff from Kenema hospital contracted and died of the disease. We watched on with great sadness as Ebola started to take a grip on the country we had come to know and love.
Hence choosing to return to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak was an easy decision to make. In many ways the country appeared much as it had done – it remained as beautiful as I remembered it and the people were as warm and open as they always had been. Yet in other ways the impact of Ebola was starkly apparent: quarantined houses were scattered through most towns and villages; previously bustling markets were closed due to a ban on public gatherings; checkpoints punctuated the roads every few miles to restrict the movement of people; even Christmas was ‘cancelled’ by the government.
We were based in Port Loko, a small town several hours outside of Freetown, the capital, working for the Irish NGO GOAL. The Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC) in Port Loko had been built by the British army, but due to the gruelling temperatures, plus the rainy season going on for almost a month longer than normal, the completion date was delayed. Not being able to get straight to work was disappointing for us, particularly as the scale of the problem within the district at that time was so immediately apparent. However there were lots of other things to be getting on with - protocol writing, training of local staff, bed building etc. - and retrospectively we feel really pleased to have been part of those formative weeks for the treatment centre.
When we did open I found working in an ETC is nothing like as scary as I had thought it might be. The biggest challenge was getting used to spending most of my time literally dripping with sweat! Ebola is a cruel illness causing severe diarrhoea, vomiting, weakness, and often dreadful pain. I would be lying if I said we did not see a lot of unpleasant things. However we also experienced the joy of seeing survivors leave the centre and witnessed the incredible humanity of patients who, even once cured, remained inside to care for others. I feel honoured to have worked with an enthusiastic and hard working group of Sierra Leonean nurses and community health officers for whom this is not just a short break away from normal life but their life for the foreseeable future.
Recent figures suggest that the numbers of new Ebola cases in Sierra Leone are starting to diminish. Although no one can be sure whether or not the outbreak is finally coming under control there is certainly reason to be optimistic. Sadly for Sierra Leone they have a long uphill struggle ahead of them even once the Ebola outbreak is over. 7500 children have been orphaned to date – and the eventual numbers are likely to be much higher. Food shortages are anticipated due restrictions on the movement of people meaning farmers were unable to grow crops this year. And there will of course be the psychological scars that people will carry with them.
However, for now we must focus on the positives, and hopefully, with the support of the international community, we are finally seeing the Ebola crisis starting to come under control. Let us hope that this progress continues….
I am incredibly grateful for the amazing support I have received from the deanery and colleagues in making it possible for me to return to Sierra Leone and play a small part in the international response to the Ebola crisis.
GPST2 North Devon