August 2014 – AFRICA – “Lots of people in my family are dead. I left my home and I don’t know what to do,” said a Guinean Ebola refugee last week. Claiming over 730 lives and infecting over 1,300 people, the world’s biggest outbreak of Ebola is creeping across West Africa. Despite a recent lull, the pandemic is now worse than ever. Sheik Umar Khan, a leading Ebola expert died of the disease, two American medics were infected in Liberia and man collapsed and later died after a flight to Lagos, Nigeria where 69 people are now being held under observation to ensure the virus doesn’t get amongst the city’s 21 million population. Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have been struggling to fight the deadly virus since March this year. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, who deployed 552 staff in hotspots across the region, the epidemic is now officially ‘out of control.’ “The medical humanitarian organization is building a quarantine unit in Kenema, Sierra Leone, to where Irish doctor Gabriel Fitzgerald has just travelled. He says his team is overwhelmed with new Ebola patients. “The sooner a person receives treatment, the better their chances of recovery. People are dying in their villages without access to medical care,” he said. Unease and panic were unleashed across the globe as people feared the disease, thought to be passed on by fruit bats, could take to the skies and end up anywhere in the world, even Ireland.” The chances of that happening are slim. It’s not airborne. You can only catch the disease from close personal contact with someone through blood or bodily fluids. It’s not like TB, which you can catch if you are sitting seven rows in front of an infected person on a plane,” says Dr Graham Fry, founder of the Tropical Medical Bureau. “Though in most cases it takes less than 21 days for symptoms including fever, headache and vomiting to take hold,” he says.
When a friend of mine’s 23- year-old sister brought Lassa fever, an almost identical hemorrhagic fever which is spread by rodents, to mainland Europe on a flight from Accra in Ghana via Lisbon, and onto Frankfurt some years back, none of her fellow passengers or people who came in direct contact with her got the disease. She went to visit her father upon arrival in Germany and fell ill at his deathbed. He died on the top floor, while she was put into an isolation ward below. It was a huge media story and people on the flight and family members were sent to a special unit to receive close examination. She died after massive internal bleeding and was never buried, she was cremated so that the disease wouldn’t spread. It’s sad that the people in this region, who have recovered so well from a brutal civil war that claimed the lives of 50,000 and only ended 12 years ago, now have a new deadly and unpredictable threat on their doorstep. The Sierra Leoneans are amongst the friendliest people in Africa and when I was there, school children would run towards me and grab my hands and smile and laugh.
Most of them live in rural parts of the country, with little communication to the outside world. They are very tactile and when they bury their dead, they kiss the body and wash it. It’s a tradition in the region and I saw it at many funerals in towns and villages. Unfortunately if the deceased has Ebola, the risk of transmission is highest on these occasions and tradition can be blamed for much of the spread of the disease, which is now affecting an area crossing 1,200km. “People in rural areas are still very ill-informed about Ebola and traditionally turned to witchdoctors, voodoo and used superstition to overcome diseases,” says Dr Fry. “This is the first outbreak in the region, so many people are unsure how to cure it and are not medicating themselves properly.” Locals have hindered foreign aid workers in space suits coming into villages as many believe they are spreading the disease not trying to contain it. Others have gone into hiding when they thought they had the Ebola, with the help of their families. n one case, the husband of a nurse who died hid after he realized that all the medical people who washed her body died, alongside the Imam who prayed over her corpse. Another sufferer went missing in Freetown in Sierra Leone after her family members got her from a hospital. Medical staff in the region are completely overstretched. They not only have to endure searing heat in rubber boots and impermeable body suits, but they are short of resources both medical and human.
While the World Health Organization promised €75m towards the crisis and border control is being stepped up, a lack of education amongst locals is still the biggest issue and many fear the virus, which can reproduce within eight hours creating millions of new viruses, will get worse before it gets better. –Independent