News & Features — 1 March 2018 at 2:33 pm

The fight against ebola & the power of resilience

Samantha Roper / Paediatric Registrar / UK, Bangladesh & Syria

Dr Samantha Roper is a British doctor with a passion for humanitarian work, who deployed to West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. She was one of the doctors in charge of Save The Children’s Ebola Treatment Centre in Kerry Town, and subsequently returned to set up ebola survivor clinics for Médecins Sans Frontières. Sam describes her personal experience working with the local Sierra Leonean teams at the survivor clinics, and explores what lessons can be learnt from them about building resilience in preparation for future global health threats.

 

West Africa is just emerging from the most deadly outbreak of Ebola the world has ever witnessed. This will remain a tragedy of unknown proportions as many deaths will remain unaccounted for and many survivors will continue to suffer in remote communities where medical aid cannot reach. The epidemic has been particularly devastating for the people of Sierra Leone who have a long history of suffering, including the most recent flooding and landslide in Freetown which took another five hundred lives and displaced six thousand people from their homes. The effects of repeated disease outbreaks and a brutal civil armed war have left prominent scars that are still visible throughout the country today.

Despite this, and with ongoing political and economic threats to their daily struggle for survival, the people of Sierra Leone have demonstrated to the world what incredible strength and resilience is possible. During the height of the outbreak, Sierra Leonean healthcare workers continued to fight on the front line despite being at a disproportionately higher risk of dying from the disease. They often worked with no protective equipment to safeguard themselves, witnessing their patients and colleagues dying around them on a daily basis.

Stories from Sierra Leone

National Community Health Officers like Amara Sesay fought tirelessly alongside international and national health organisations to protect communities in some of the worst hit areas such as Kenema, where British nurse Will Pooley and American doctor Ian Crozier became infected. Amara described his experiences caring for his tutor Dr Khan, Sierra Leone’s lead expert in viral haemorrhagic fever who tragically contracted the disease from one of his patients at the beginning of the outbreak.

“I was terrified of going back to work after watching him die from the disease but my mother reminded me of the duty I had to care for my community and the people of my country”

 

All over West Africa we saw Ebola survivors return to work in treatment centres to help care for the sickest patients inside the Red Zone, even though this triggered traumatic memories of their own suffering. In view of what little knowledge there is about immunity and therefore the risk of re-infection, this was a powerful demonstration of the level of compassion and commitment the Sierra Leonean people have to each another.

Ebola survivors suffer debilitating fatigue and body pains, frequently associated with loss of both vision and hearing. Despite this they formed their own support groups and survivor networks in remote parts of the country where national and international aid could not reach. Aminata was deaf from birth and was admitted to Medecins Sans Frontiere’s Ebola Management Centre in Magburaka with two small children. She had already lost her husband and another child to Ebola and could only watch helplessly as two further children succumbed to the disease.  In her village more than fifty people had been infected and only nine survived. She was terrified of returning home as she had no way of supporting herself, but her village donated a plot of land for the survivors, who pooled their resources to buy seeds and contributed labour with the hope to split the produce.

We also witnessed distant family members and altruistic neighbours coming forward to adopt Ebola orphans. Twelve year old Edward became sick when both his parents contracted the disease; he was the only one who survived. He returned home to help care for his six siblings, who are also now Ebola orphans. The people in his village helped support the funding needed for the children to return to school, so that Edward would not miss out on his education.

Reflections

The people of Sierra Leone continued to demonstrate a profound tolerance throughout the outbreak, collaborating with foreign partners who have largely dominated the response to Ebola in their country. This tolerance, and the altruism they showed towards strangers from both inside and outside their communities, provided essential support for victims of the disease – especially in remote areas of the country where it was extremely difficult to access help.

Now that the fight against Ebola has quietened, we have an opportunity to reflect on what can be learnt from the way that the people of West Africa have responded to this deadly disease. In the Western world, where the focus is often on the individual and rather than the community, I wondered how would we respond to this epidemic in our homes, villages and hospitals? Recent tragic events in the UK such as the Manchester bombing and the stabbings in London have demonstrated our ability to unite in the face of tragedy, and the power of this to help people overcome adversity. We can and should look to use these experiences in building our own resilience and sense of community for future threats to humanity, both in the UK and overseas.

Interested in working in Sierra Leone?

The King’s Sierra Leone Partnership / There are a range of funded volunteer opportunities that can be found on the KSLP website.

Global Links RCPCH / Looking for paediatric experience? There are volunteer placements available in Myanmar, Rwanda and Sierra Leone on the UK Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health site.

Cap Anamur German Emergency Doctors / A German-based non-profit organisation focussing on medical care and access to education. Send them an application and CV if interested in working with them.

Welbodi Partnership / An organisation that works in tertiary hospitals & primary care in Sierra Leone, aiming to improve access to good community healthcare, in particular for women and children. Voluntary and staff postions can be found advertised online and via their mailing lists.

 

All photos are used with the permission of those photographed. All names/stories are used with permission, are published already in mainstream media, or have been altered to retain patient anonymity.