The Human Side of Ebola

Written by Concern Worldwide U.S.

Health workers fear that if Ebola reaches Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, it could spread rapidly throughout its urban slums and from there to the rest of the country via major transport routes.

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.

– Kristen Cahill is the Senior Program Manager for Innovations for MNCH, an initiative of Concern Worldwide in Sierra Leone.

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.

Concern's Innovations for MNCH (maternal, newborn, and child health) initiative in Bo district, Sierra Leone, trains traditional birth attendants (TBAs) to become maternal newborn health promoters (MNHPs)

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.

– Katie Waller is the Program Officer for Innovations for MNCH, an initiative of Concern in Sierra Leone.

Photo Credit: European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr


Dominic C.
Dominic C3 years ago

Brave people are frightened people. Agreed that we have encroached our living spaces with that of the animals. But that said, I am also of the impression that Ebola is actually consequently controlled in the 90s, how does it actually get out of the bag again that bags the huge question. Despite more and more wanted to believe that its from the wild, vis-a-vis, bats but I beg to differ. What if its all a bag of lies to create a drug? We do not have to point the fingers at Big Pharma but there are so many rogue countries and groups who just want to expose and experiment the virus and see how far it can go and what sort of resolve is out there... Creating a virus is just like getting instructions from the internet to make an atomic bomb!

Mark Donners
Mark Donner3 years ago

Karma from nature. Wait till it becomes airborne. Human overpopulation has a kickback.

JL A3 years ago

we do need to always remember the human face with every issue

Janet B.
Janet B3 years ago


Jane R.
Jane R3 years ago

This is so dangerous. We are fortunate to live in a country that has standards and is safe.

Nimue P.

Thank you, KH. You can bet your bottom dollar that if ebola was to hit Europe, the UK or the US, they would make a vaccine so fast our heads would spin. It's about time everyone in the world was treated with the same care and compassion. Chance would be a fine thing.

K H.
Kate H3 years ago

Nimue P. I agree, I wish more people would care, and I think what you said is a huge part of the reason why there's not a vaccine. I can't understand it, because last time I checked, African people and U.S. people are both human beings, and the way that I was taught was that all human beings deserve to have happy lives no matter where they come from.
Care2 website-running people, if you're reading this, would you please consider putting together an action alert and/or petition concerning this Ebola outbreak somehow? I would be happy to write something myself, but I have no idea what aspects to narrow in on or who to address it to. I looked and I think the only active petition for it on Petition Site only has like 15 signatures..Thanks in advance.

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Lucas Kolasa
Lucas Kolasa3 years ago


Sue H.
Sue H3 years ago

Prayers Up for all living near outbreaks. Seems that Educating people about this dreadful disease should be top priority. Hiding family members only increases others falling prey. It Is truly unfortunate that a vaccine has not been found yet.