Written by Concern Worldwide U.S.
An Ebola outbreak unprecedented in terms of its deadliness and its geographic reach has been sweeping through West Africa, hitting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to the World Health Organization, over 800 people have so far been infected and more than 500 have died, with the numbers steadily climbing. Initial flu-like symptoms develop quickly into vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes internal and external bleeding. There is no vaccination and the mortality rate can be up to 90 percent.
Two members of our field staff shared their on-the-ground experiences from Sierra Leone.
“I Never Thought I Would Have to Take a Call Like This”
Every Monday since the Ebola virus appeared in Sierra Leone, my weekly routine is to check my email for the latest Ebola case numbers and confer with field staff for updates on the ground. Every Monday, I hope the answer will be the same: no confirmed cases in Bo. So far we have been lucky here. We have managed to stay free of the disease, which has spread rapidly through neighboring districts. But before I could even open my computer this Monday morning, I received a text message. It held the news I hoped I would never get: “Please call asap, I have an Ebola update for you that needs urgent attention.” The message was from our Ebola focal person on the ground in Bo.
Over the weekend, I learned, a child had died from Ebola at a private clinic just outside Bo City, in the Southern Province.
The child’s family had fled to hide with relatives in Bo when two of their children had tested positive for Ebola. They fled for the same reasons many people do: a misunderstanding of the disease and an overwhelming fear that their children would die from it. One child was traced and sent to a treatment facility in nearby Kenema. The other had been hidden by family in a local village. When the symptoms became too difficult to manage, they brought the child to a nearby clinic. The nurse was unaware that the child was suffering from Ebola. She had no capacity to treat the disease. The child died in the clinic.
I’ve been a nurse for over ten years, six of those in Africa, and I never thought I would have to take a call like this. You can never fully prepare yourself for something like Ebola. It’s so intangible, so unreal. But now it’s here. All one can do is brace oneself for the next text or phone call, knowing that we are just at the beginning of this. There is more to come.
“Terrifying: The Stuff of Hollywood Movies and Computer Games”
I remember reading the news of the potential Ebola outbreak in Guinea in February, just as I was finishing a two-month stint in Sierra Leone. Ebola is one of those diseases you hear about in public health school that is both fascinating and terrifying, the stuff of Hollywood movies and computer games, but you never expect to come across it in your career. It all felt far away and unreal. While it crossed my mind that the outbreak could enter Sierra Leone, after a month or so it seemed unlikely. Ebola wasn’t going to be a reality for any of “my” friends or “my” beneficiaries.
However, as I prepared to return to Sierra Leone at the end of May, several cases of Ebola were identified there. It was as if an alarm bell went off: it’s here, it’s actually happening. My colleagues and I followed the news closely. The scariest part was that the information was confusing and incomplete, making it hard to know whether we were taking the right precautionary steps. Though the outbreak was said to be fairly isolated and not directly affecting our work, we couldn’t stop thinking about it. What would happen if a case were to be identified in the districts where we work? What if…? What if..?
Throughout the month, the scale of the outbreak continued to grow and so did the number of stories rolling in from others in the field. A friend and colleague lost a family member—health professional—to the disease. Hearing this made my heart break. I can only imagine the confusion that people experience when their loved ones fall sick and are whisked off to an isolation unit, never to be seen again. The second feeling I had was anger. Health professionals are rare and precious in Sierra Leone and they are also most at risk of contracting Ebola. Protecting them is not impossible but it often feels that way. Incidents like this highlight the weaknesses of the local health systems and the urgent need for us to keep building and strengthening them.
As I was boarding my flight home from Sierra Leone, I got a text message that there was a confirmed Ebola case in the district where I work. We have suspended our program there for the time being. My greatest fear is that if the situation continues to worsen, not only will it lead to many lost lives and increasing chaos in a country that is still rebuilding, but also that the suspension of development programs like ours will have repercussions for Sierra Leone’s people long after the disease itself has been contained.
Photo Credit: European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr