Fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone: ‘The world is not safe’

An Ebola care training course at the University of Seirra Leone’s faculty of nursing, Freetown.

An Ebola care training course at the University of Seirra Leone’s faculty of nursing, Freetown. Photograph: Ministry of Defence/EPA

Sparsely-equipped hospitals and beleaguered staff battle a disease whose victims outpace the number of beds being built

(SOURCE)  All over Freetown, buildings, vehicles and people are being commandeered in the fight against Ebola. In the suburb of Wilberforce, in an old building for the telecommunications company Airtel, a dozen students loiter on a wall waiting to relieve staff from the trauma at the Ebola hotline they are manning.

Outside, the din of ambulances would not be noteworthy until the driver and passenger appear in regulation yellow overalls, mask, goggles, hood and visor.

Every ambulance is now an Ebola ambulance in Sierra Leone’s capital where an invisible malevolent force has taken hold, causing fear and untold grief as the dying and the dead infect families and friends in their wake.

According to the World Health Organisation, there have been 5,235 confirmed, probable and suspected Ebola cases in Sierra Leone, out of 13,703 worldwide, and 1,500 deaths.

Inside the call centre, cancer biologist Reynold Senesi talks to four soldiers. They have been brought on board following a political reshuffle which has put the defence ministry in charge of the war against Ebola, a move everyone applauds.

Health workers walk to pick up a four-month-old baby victim of Ebola in central Freetown.

Health workers walk to pick up a four-month-old baby victim of Ebola in central Freetown. Health workers walk to pick up a four-month-old baby victim of Ebola in central Freetown. Photograph: EPA

Three months ago, Senesi was working on launching the country’s first oncology unit. That has been put on hold as the team he manages doles out compassion and promises of dispatched ambulances to 1,300 Ebola calls a day.

“Last week we had a patient who lost her mother, her father and her cousin. They were all lying there and the burial team hadn’t collected them,” said Rebecca Trye, 24, one of Senesi’s 135 staff. “I felt so sad because you can’t do anything. She asked for my name and she called again the next day and she was crying because they still hadn’t been collected.”

Three desks away, Ibrahim Sesay takes a call pleading for a toddler to be rescued. “The mother was buried and the father was dead. They said there was a two-year-old child left in the house. He kept knocking on the door calling for his dad. The baby was already infected.”

Most of the staff at the 117 hotline are students, freed from their studies because all schools and universities were shut when the state of emergency was declared.

In the foothills enveloping Freetown, Major Henry Bangura has also been redeployed. His team converted an old police training camp into a 100-bed Ebola treatment centre in three days last month during a three-day lockdown.

In the city centre, British doctor Oliver Johnson, who has worked in the Connaught hospital for two years, tells of similar heroic work. In an attempt to keep the hospital open for general care, he and his team converted the triage in the Connaught hospital into a 16-bed isolation unit in just five hours.

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in the Waterloo district of Freetown.

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in the Waterloo district of Freetown. Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in the Waterloo district of Freetown. Photograph: Reuters

But the tireless work of those living in Sierra Leone is not proving enough to catch the disease whose victims easily outpace the number of beds being built.

Between fielding calls in another hectic day at the Connaught, Johnson says a change in mentality is needed to bridge the chasm between grand plans hatched in Washington, New York and London and the urgent needs on the ground.

He says he is impressed with the “joined up thinking of British government” efforts with a 100-bed facility due to open in the suburb of Kerry Town and five more hospitals scheduled to open before the end of November.

But while locals can convert buildings within days, the British hospitals are taking two months to build and there is scepticism that the remaining facilities will be built in four weeks. “Time is against us. Kerry Town is part of the solution but it’s not going to be enough any more,” says Johnson. “We’ve moved from one or two cases a day to more than 30 cases a day in Freetown, and by next month maybe we will be getting 60, 70, 80 positive cases a day, so that 100-bed unit in Kerry Town will be full in 48 hours,” he says.

In the new command centre in Freetown there is a sense that the management, at least, of the epidemic in the capital is under control. Burials are being completed within 24 hours. But there is little to celebrate.

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