Sinead Walsh was appointed ambassador to Sierra Leone in May but previously headed the Irish Aid office responsible for assistance programmes there and in neighbouring Liberia.
“There is enormous panic here in Sierra Leone”, she said of the outbreak, which is known to have killed more than 700 people and infected 1,300 more in a matter of weeks.
“These outbreaks are coming on top of hugely overstretched health systems and very poor education systems.
“We have seen a lot of progress in Sierra Leone and Liberia over the last 10 years since the wars ended.
“Here in Sierra Leone, poverty has halved since the end of the war and we were feeling quite encouraged in recent years about the progress. And then you have ebola which really risks undermining everything we have been doing.”
Ms Walsh told RTÉ that one of the most worrying trends was the reluctance of people to seek medical help because of the stigma associated with the disease and the lack of understanding around it.
Aid workers have warned that people are preferring to let their loved ones die at home so that they can give them a traditional burial rather their bodies being safely, if clinically, disposed of.
“You spend so many years trying to get women for example to come to clinics to give birth, which is much safer than giving birth at home in a country which has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world, and now we are seeing that reverse,” said Ms Walsh.
“The education system is really, really critical. Six out of 10 people can not read or write so, naturally, a disease comes in and you’ve never seen it before and people are dying in your community — of course you are very suspicious. There is a huge amount of rumour and conspiracy theories.”
Ms Walsh called for support for the efforts of the countries and teams of foreign medical aid workers trying to deal with the outbreaks against the backdrop of a health system that often lacked basics such as sterile gloves.
“This is just an absolutely enormous crisis for this country,” said Ms Walsh. “There is a huge shortage of health workers, a huge shortage of equipment. It really needs a massive amount of international support. We don’t have any time to waste because every day we see new victims.”