My Experience as an Ebola Responder

My Experience as an Ebola Responder

This piece is by Dr. Freeman Osonuga. Freeman is a One Young World Ambassador from Nigeria. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Heal The World Foundation Nigeria and was named one of the 'Ten Outstanding Young Persons In Nigeria' in 2013. In his blog, Freeman reflects on his experience as part of the African Union's Ebola response mission in Sierra Leone.

I entered the departure lounge of the Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport with mix of fear, uncertainty and hope. I was on a 6-month medical mission to the Ebola-affected countries of West Africa with a team of Nigerian medical professionals sent by ASEOWA (African Union Support to the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa).

Ebola was declared a public health emergency in August 2014. The African Union deployed a joint military and medical humanitarian mission, with 835 health experts from all over Africa deployed to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This virus is highly deadly and has taken the lives of over 230 care workers to date. My country, Nigeria, has successfully eradicated the Ebola virus so I was glad to support other countries' efforts.

I was stationed with a medical team in Magbenteh Ebola Treatment Unit in northern Sierra Leone. It is a 100-bed facility managed by the African Union and the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation. We were guided by the belief that every life counts - and that professionalism rather than heroism is what makes a difference.

African problem, African solution

In the Magbenteh Unit we have a 65% survival rate. 157 patients were admitted and 101 of them survived. There has been a zero percent infection rate of the staff in this Unit because of our excellent infection prevention measures.

We have a staff of over 200 health professionals with doctors, nurses, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, community health workers, porters, administrative teams, psychological and surveillance teams. These staff run morning, afternoon, and night shifts day in day out.

It is a delight to work with other Africans from Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, fellow Nigerians. In addition, we overcome the language barrier between patients and doctors with the support of Sierra Leone's dedicated community health officers. The spirit of pan-Africanism is strong in this team. Fighting a common enemy has united us.

How Ebola Treatment works

The Ebola virus presents a specific range of challenges. It is a dehumanizing disease because it takes away your ability to experience basic human contact. If someone in your family is infected you cannot hold, touch or comfort them. For us medical professionals, handshakes and hugs are replaced with sanitizers and chlorine solutions.

The ETU is strictly divided into high and low-risk zones. Ebola patients are admitted into the high-risk zone whilst staff prepare their treatments in the low risk-zone.

When treating patients we have to wearing full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This is huge a barrier to the doctor-patient relationship. They are hot and uncomfortable - you end up drenched in sweat within a short time after working in the sweltering heat, you have reduced visibility through the visor and you have to limit the time you spend with each patient when the wards are full.

You must minimize contact with patients because invasive procedures and handling samples from infected patients is too risky. We have to limit physical examinations and avoid many routine medical investigations. So monitoring critically ill patients cannot be completed effectively because we have to protect ourselves from infection.

Where are we now?

It's been one year since the outbreak was officially declared by the WHO. In that time the virus has taken the lives of more than 10,000 people mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. A further 10,000 children have been orphaned after losing one or both parents to Ebola. The disease has been devastating but the the number of new cases is decreasing. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the head of the UN Ebola mission has recently suggested that the outbreak will be over by August this year. There is indeed cause to be optimistic as our efforts are gear towards achieving a zero infection rate and improving the poor healthcare infrastructure which has been devastated by the outbreak.

Despite the positive projections we must not convince ourselves that the threat is over. Health responders and the international community must stay vigilant and keep investing the resources needed to end the outbreak. Running an Ebola response is extremely expensive and there is no way affected countries will be able to curb the outbreak without the continued support of partners like the WHO, UN, UKAID, USA CDC, China, CDC, UNICEF, World Food Programme, Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) International, International Medical Corps and others who are present on the ground.


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