GUEST COLUMNIST: On the Ebola frontline there is horror and happiness

I SPENT a month in Sierra Leone, at the front line of the largest Ebola outbreak in history.

I was working in the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) 65-bed Ebola treatment centre. It has since increased capacity to 96 beds and the medical team are now receiving patients from many other hotspot areas in the country.

Patients are transported by ambulance over bumpy roads for up to eight hours to reach the centre. People are often very sick and lose their fight for life during the journey. I remember peering into the back of an ambulance which had just pulled up outside the triage tent, being careful not to get too close. A young man was lying dead in the back. He was curled up in the corner. I could guess his final moments had not been peaceful.

In the suspected cases ward I saw a small child getting his nappy changed by a nurse who was wearing a full body plastic protective suit. The child was clinging on to the nurse and searching and hoping for comfort in a place which does not allow direct skin to skin contact. As a father myself, this image stuck in my mind.

On the same evening a mother and her two children were admitted to the hospital with confirmed Ebola. A heartbreaking sight as they entered quietly. Within days the mother and eldest child had passed away. It is startling how quickly this virus can kill patients.

As part of my role I also worked as a medical epidemiologist. This essentially involves investigating cases to try and find out where/how the patient initially contracted Ebola. I travelled to a small village about one hour’s drive from Kailahun where a number of cases have been reported.

The village consists of about 10 houses around a central square. The village chief told me two families had been almost wiped out by the virus during the last week of July and this had caused great fear among the inhabitants.The first person to develop the illness in the village hunted “bush meat” in the surrounding jungle and used to sell it to his neighbours, including those families affected by the virus.

Since then, health promotion teams from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have visited the village providing education and advice about the Ebola outbreak. This somewhat alleviated the villagers’ concern but not fully. When a small village suddenly loses two families to an unknown virus it can take a long time to recover.

However, there are happy stories too. One patient who particularly stands out was 19-year-old Hawa. She was from a village three hours away. In total, eight members of her family became infected with Ebola. Three of them died. She was very weak when her sister-in-law brought her to our centre. Two days later her husband fell ill and was also brought to the centre. Luckily their one-year-old daughter Hellen was not infected.

After three weeks, Hawa had recovered and was able to be discharged. She was accompanied on the journey back to her village by members of MSF’s health promotion team. Hawa had been anxious that she would be stigamised or even rejected by her community after having had Ebola.

Luckily, this didn’t prove to be the case. Dozens of her family members and neighbours came up to the MSF car to welcome her back, chanting “Hawa! Hawa! Hawa!” and as soon as she got out of the car she was enveloped in hugs. Then another family member carried her little daughter to her. Having not seen her mother for nearly a month, little Hellen was a bit hesitant and not sure who the person in front of her was. But as soon as Hawa cradled her daughter in her arms and gave her a kiss, the little girl smiled.

Hawa is one of 373 patients who have now recovered having received care at MSF’s centre in Kailahun. Across West Africa, more than 1,500 people have walked out of MSF’s Ebola Treatment Centres as survivors.

However, the overall effort to combat Ebola in Sierra Leone is being outpaced. The situation is still not under control. Governments and various NGOs have sent teams to construct new centres in different locations around the country, including in the capital Freetown. While many centres are scheduled to open soon, they will not be running at full capacity until well into the new year. The epidemic is far from over and more help is still needed.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is an independent international medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid in nearly 70 countries worldwide. We provide emergency medical care to people caught up in war, disasters and epidemics. We are funded primarily by donations from the public which gives us the independence to provide quality medical care wherever it’s needed most, free from political, military or religious agendas. With independent donations, we can quickly deploy skilled teams to the front lines of wars and disasters while also retaining capacity to respond to forgotten crises. Help our doctors operate.

Dr Fitzpatrick is the chairperson of Médecins Sans Frontières. A Christmas Coffee Morning in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) at Hopkins Communications premises, Media House, Crawford Business Park, Cork (opposite St Finbarr’s Cathedral) on Thursday December 11 from 10am to 1pm.

To donate: www.msf.ie



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