Blog from the field: Ebola in Sierra Leone
Monday 19 January
I arrived in Sierra Leone yesterday at 7pm. The journey from the airport to the hotel was a three-hour drive, largely in darkness, as there is still no electrification in large parts of the country.
But as we reach Port Loko, one thing does stand out: the Ebola Care Unit, a fenced-off compound with a cluster of white medical tents, flooded in bright light. And as we continue, we pass incineration centres and other sites associated with the Ebola response, similarly brightly lit in the surrounding darkness. It's an eerie image.
Today I met various members of the Plan team working on the response. Things are looking better. Ebola cases peaked in November, and it looks like January will see a drop in new cases. However, as the Deputy Country Director, Farai Zisengwe, says, “we’ve celebrated false victories before”. And late last week, it was announced that in Moyamba entire chiefdoms are being quarantined, as Ebola outbreak hotspots keep appearing.
Plan International will be coordinating with other agencies, such as the World Food Programme, to get food and household items to those quarantined, and to decontaminate homes. This entails the cleaning and removal of bedding and other material that might carry infected body fluids, and providing replacement sheets and blankets.
Stopping the spread
I also visited a site at Hastings, a rural town in the Western Area of Sierra Leone, where ambulances and vans that have removed contaminated materials, Ebola patients or dead bodies from homes are cleaned and disinfected.
Plan is responsible for the pick-up of contaminated materials, safe disposal and the cleaning of vehicles. The site is run by a partner charity, and we also work with a local partner to run the decontamination, delivery of replacement kits, food and non-food item (NFI) kits for those quarantined in the Western Area.
Meeting Ebola workers
When cars arrive, they enter a red zone. Someone in a PPE suit sprays them down with chlorine and then a team does a final clean of the vehicles. All the team are young, around 20 and mostly female. Their colleges closed in June and July. With little to do, they saw these roles advertised and applied for the jobs. I ask if they’re afraid of Ebola, but one, Esther, tells me they feel they have the protection they need to do the job safely. Another, Adam, tells me a lot of their friends are afraid though, and some don’t come near them anymore.
They seem pretty happy with their work. When I point to the red zone and ask if they’d be happy to work there in the PPE suits, they’re less keen – it’s riskier.
Whilst I'm visiting, the head of the national Ebola response arrives. He praises the work and says he wants one legacy of the response to be a national ambulance service. When the Ebola outbreak started, there was only one ambulance per district. Having a single ambulance and trying to deal with the epidemic, given the intense work involved in safely transporting Ebola patients, seems unthinkable to me. Now, just at this site, which services the Western Area, there are at least ten ambulances.
Making an impact
The response to Ebola can hardly be said to be perfect, but it looks like all this work – getting people into treatment and isolation, safely burying bodies and removing infected materials, and isolating and supporting households affected by Ebola – is really making an impact.
The visit is also a good boost for morale. The teams are doing really important work, some of it quite risky, so it’s important that their work is acknowledged.
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