THE BLOG

UK Medics are Doing a Heroic Job Tackling Ebola, but Who is Taking Care of Them?

26/01/2015 17:36 GMT | Updated 28/03/2015 09:59 GMT

The case of Ebola in Glasgow has prompted much discussion about how aid organisations protect their staff in West Africa. At the centre of it is a lady who has made huge personal sacrifices to help people in Sierra Leone, and this should not be forgotten.

My role as an occupational health nurse was to protect the health and well-being of Red Cross staff at our treatment centre in Kenema, be they local staff, or international aid workers.

We're not there only to treat staff when they get sick, we're there to stop them from becoming ill. It's not just about making sure they don't catch Ebola either - there are multiple issues to consider: other illnesses such as malaria; the psychological impact of dealing with death on a daily basis; the stress of an intense workload. Care for our staff is not something we take lightly.

Ebola is not airborne; it is transmitted through direct contact with contaminated bodily fluids. You can't touch anyone. No handshakes, no hugs. With all the death, sometimes a consoling hug is sorely needed.

A big part of my job was to monitor staff in order to lower the risk of infection. We would watch them as they carried out their work. If there was a breach in protocol, no matter how small, it would be reported immediately and investigated.

We consider everyone working in direct contact with Ebola patients to be at risk and we also look at the possibility that not everyone will come forward if there's exposure to contaminated body fluids. Some may prefer not to think about it or deny it even happened. This isn't unique to Ebola. I've worked with HIV doctors who haven't come forward after needle injuries. It's human nature.

This is why the Red Cross has a buddy system in place, so staff are never alone. The buddy is there to prevent any unsafe work or spot any problems with their colleague's protective clothing. It also ensures that any risk is reported immediately.

When in contact with patients, you have to be dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) - goggles, mask, gloves, boots, and overalls. You can't get much safer than being dressed in PPE. The dangerous part is when you take it off.

Any contact with a contaminated glove or surface could be fatal, so it's not just a case of throwing off the kit. You also have to consider that temperatures in the suits reach up to 45 degrees and that the nurse or doctor may be upset at having just lost a patient. There's a dresser who talks you through the process no matter how many times you've come through decontamination. We never rush anything.

Ebola is not the only disease to contend with, there are other illnesses such as malaria. If you end up sick, we carry out a full risk assessment, isolate and monitor the individual. We take no chances.

For the most part, the international staff at the Red Cross treatment centre have years of experience behind them. But even so, you cannot neglect the psychological impact of dealing with death on a daily basis. The Red Cross has a team of psychosocial advisors at the centre ready to support staff with emotional or psychological issues. They also offer emotional care to patients and those who survive Ebola.

When we return to the UK, in addition to the screening at the airport, we immediately undergo a full check-up and have access to psychological support.

The case in Glasgow has also highlighted the stigma attached to aid workers returning from West Africa. As I write this, my friends are going to a party, but I cannot go to crowded areas and I know I might not be welcome. I visited my sister who welcomed me with open arms, however, one of her friends wasn't so friendly - he ran out of the house.

My own teenage children would prefer I wait 21 days (the incubation period of Ebola) before going home. I'm staying with my mum for this period and checking my body temperature twice a day and reporting to Public Health England.

Much of the fear is due to a lack of understanding. Yes it's highly infectious, but it's not highly contagious. In West Africa, we are fighting misinformation with education.

Aid workers returning home shouldn't be ostracised. Doing so will make people more reluctant to come forward and help. We need more people on the ground if we're going to end this outbreak.

Let's not lose sight of the fact there are more than 20,000 cases of Ebola across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia: it is imperative that we keep fighting.