Ebola Reflection: Sierra Leone one year on
In October 2014 Phil Jones was deployed to Sierra Leone, where he advised Save the Children on safety issues during the Ebola epidemic. Here he gives a vivid account of what it meant to be on the ground at the time.
It seems that my deployment to Sierra Leone as part of the Ebola response, is something from the distant past. Only a year ago? Wow!
Sierra Leone is a country that has seen its fair share of conflict in the past, but recently it has faced another deadly battle. The enemy this time has been a silent killer moving amongst the population, indiscriminately killing men, women and children: Ebola.
Memories of my first impressions of Free Town and the rural towns and villages linger. At first glance, everything seems normal – markets operating, people going about their business, streets full of people; but, on closer inspection, a few subtle differences hint that all is not well.
People are meeting, but not shaking hands. In the crowded streets, there is a noticeable effort not to bump into one-another. People have taken heed of the Government warnings to avoid skin to skin contact due to the potential spread of the Ebola virus.
I observe the many checkpoints set up by police; every car is stopped, the temperatures of the vehicle occupants are taken, all in a rather vain attempt to reassure the general population that controls and measures are in place. Lots of children are milling around, looking bored. Not at school? All schools have been closed, it seems, and education programmes are now broadcast over the radio. Exams have been postponed indefinitely and there is the possibility of the whole school year being a non-event. There is uncertainty about how long it will last. That is the big question on everyone’s lips.
The rural situation
Travelling to the more remote and rural areas I come across more checkpoints where whole villages are in isolation after Ebola has been identified in the village. The medics and government officials battle with a problem rooted in misplaced beliefs – low levels of education mean the issues surrounding the spread of Ebola have not been understood. People are scared to go to clinics or hospitals as they see sick people going in but not coming out and believe you go to hospital with Ebola just to die.
Many have contracted the virus by tending to the sick and dying. Some have contracted the virus from the dead: washing the corpses of those that have died at home is a normal practice, but the highly contagious virus can survive even after the host has passed away.
Another ambulance arrives at the village; medics dressed in full, individual, personal protective equipment (PPE) emerge to take the sick or the dead away and then to cleanse the dwelling with chlorine solutions. The medics are colloquially called ‘ghosts’, because of the white PPE they wear and their job of dealing with the sick and dying.
There are contrasting reactions to the situation; some seemingly paranoid, others blasé, but as time has progressed and the death-toll has climbed the full impact has been realised by all. Movement restrictions have been put in place, socialising in groups is banned by the government and across the region there have been approximately 11,000 deaths; some figures also show about 13,000 people have survived the virus.
Today, as I write, The UK NHS (National Health Service) volunteer nurse who contracted Ebola in December 2014, has fallen seriously ill once again. Pauline Cafferky spent time talking to me at the airport on departure from Sierra Leone and worked at the Kerry Town Ebola Treatment Centre, in which I had responsibilities. Ten months later she has been re-admitted to the Royal Free Hospital special isolation unit in London after the virus re-emerged in her system. Doctors have admitted they have no idea how long the virus can survive ‘hidden’ in the body after it is apparently clear from the blood supply.
On a more hopeful note, there have been no new cases of Ebola declared in the region since 1st September 2015 and so now we are in the 42-day period until the all-clear can be announced, although that may still not be the end.
Phil has recently been awarded the Ebola Medal which was given to UK and Commonwealth citizens on duty in West Africa during the Ebola crisis. Well deserved recognition.
Sierra Leone was declared free of Ebola by the WHO on January 14 2016. See http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2016/ebola-zero-liberia/en/