Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ebola: The World's Response...

While sitting in The Netherlands after needing to leave Sierra Leone just over a week ago, I am not only pondering when and how I can go back to support the fight against Ebola but I am also reflecting on what the world's response is and should or could be during this current outbreak. Yes, there has been some response from leaders world wide, but is it adequate and appropriate?  Recent articles from The Guardian and New York times state that not enough is being done. Who should respond and what should that response look like?

In the initial phase of this outbreak, I think the disease could (should) have been contained and dealt with by the governments of the West African nations, with strategic support from experienced agencies such as MSF (Doctors without Borders), CDC (Center for Disease Control), Public Health England/Canada and the WHO (World Health Organisation). There are so many factors that have contributed to the fact that the situation is now out of control. I personally feel that more could have been done. Sierra Leone, for example, could have shut the borders to Guinea and Liberia immediately, districts such as Kailahun (and Kenema) could have been quarantined in a very early stage of the outbreak, training of health care staff and mobilisation of resources throughout the country could have been completed prior to the spread of the disease, enhanced security could have been enforced at isolation and treatment centres and a state of Emergency could have been declared weeks before it was. But this did not happen. Some of these measures have since been put in place, but is it too late?

Now, due to a variety of reasons, we have an outbreak, with 783 confirmed cases in Sierra Leone as of the 19th of August (MOHS statistics), that is seemingly impossible to contain. I do not think that the governments can solely be blamed for this, the behaviour of citizens has definitely played a role as well. 

Based on past experiences, many Sierra Leonean citizens did not trust the government or health care workers at the start of the outbreak leading to both a disbelief in the existence of Ebola and a lack of cooperation with health care professionals and government officials. This meant that high-risk cultural practices (such as washing bodies before a burial) continued to take place, confirmed cases escaped treatment centres or were pulled out by their relatives, patients were hidden in their homes and contacts of cases did not come forward. 

Various conspiracy theories concerning the origin of the outbreak added fuel to the level of distrust. Some people believed that Ebola was a way for the governing party to wipe out those in favor of the opposition party (the districts in the East). Others believed it was just another way for the government to gain foreign aid; a way for the rich to get richer with the thought "more cases = more aid". Some believed that the 'white man' introduced Ebola to wipe out Africans or to come and test their drugs. Some thought that health care workers were injecting people with Ebola. There are so many theories that have made it difficult to deal with this outbreak quickly. Rumors of remedies such as bathing in salt water or drinking special water sent by a Nigerian pastor have also compounded the matter.

Now, I think most people believe that Ebola is real. But are people informed enough? Do they realize the scope of the problem? Do people know what to do or not to do? Is the fear of Ebola going to keep sick people at home? 

People are afraid that if they go to a health facility they may contract Ebola from a doctor or nurse. Even for those that want to access health care, the situation has worsened to the extent that the health care system has basically collapsed. Due to fear of contracting the disease from patients or lack of protective equipment or colleagues succumbing to the disease, many health care workers are too afraid to work. Some hospitals are refusing new admissions and have basically shut down. What does that mean for someone with a fever seeking medical care? They may be turned away at the health facilities and forced to self treat at home for disease such as malaria or pneumonia. They may or may not get better. They may die at home of Ebola, meanwhile infecting their family members. People are afraid that if they have a fever and go to a hospital, they will be isolated immediately and be tested for Ebola. They fear they may be isolated with other people that may be positive for Ebola and they might even catch Ebola while waiting in an isolation unit. They are afraid that if they are positive they will be taken to a treatment centre, which for many, is seen as a death sentence. These are all realistic fears that need to be addressed.

The ripple effects of the outbreak include a collapse of the already fragile health care system leading to more men, women and children dying at home from preventable and treatable diseases. The outbreak has temporarily suspended formal educational systems and will have serious economic impacts as well, with a loss of trade, less investments and reduction in farming.  Fears now are that people may struggle to find food and that the risk of starvation may surface.

It is obviously time for a global response. International support is crucial. Governments from around the world need to work hand-in-hand with the governments of West Africa. Global leaders are needed to help with decision making on solutions to overcome this outbreak. 

However, according to The Guardian, "The international community has made "almost zero" response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, with western leaders more interested in protecting their own countries than helping contain the crisis that has now claimed more than 1,200 lives, a senior international aid worker said on Tuesday. "Leaders in the west are talking about their own safety and doing things like closing airlines – and not helping anyone else."

Is that the response the World is ready to offer? Or will they look beyond their borders and realize that their response needs to be directed to what is happening on the ground in West Africa? 

The operations director of MSF (Doctors without Borders) states that "the solution is not that complicated but we need to have political will to do so. Time is running against us. But you need very senior people with high profiles, the kind of people who can co-ordinate a response to a million people affected by an earthquake," he said. He also said containing Ebola was "not rocket science" identifying "contact tracing" and public communications as the key factors.

Can the world deliver this? I hope so because otherwise this fight seems very hopeless. 

Practically speaking, more doctors and nurses are needed to run treatment centres and isolation units across the country. There simply are not enough medical professionals in country to deal with this situation. Mobilisation of resources are needed to make sure that every health facility has the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) they need - full PPE suits for isolation and treatment centres, and enough protective gear (gloves, aprons, masks, eye protection) on the wards of every hospital and health centre to enhance infection control measures. Training is needed to ensure that people use the protective equipment appropriately and do not infect themselves when taking it off for example.  People are needed on the ground to support contact tracing and surveillance systems. People are needed to go from house to house to follow up on those who have been in contact with Ebola patients. Coordination is needed to support all of these efforts. Communication needs to be effective. Unless this happens, the disease will continue to spread. It's time to work together, it's time for a global response. 

Dr. Liu, President of MSF said that "no matter how many patients her organisation treats, the outbreak will not end until other agencies can halt the progression of new infections."

This is a call for help from West Africa to the rest of the world. This is a please for individuals, organisations and governments to join the fight to end this outbreak. Who will step in?

Quotes taken from: 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Back to school, but not for children in Sierra Leone...

It's "back to school" for many children. It's all over Facebook. Pictures of children with their backpacks on, ready to go back to school or for some for the first time ever. It's an exciting day for children and their parents and maybe a little sad for some too. However, it's often seen as the start of something new. 

This year, children in Sierra Leone are not so fortunate. They don't know when they will go back to school. Some children were not even able to finish school last year because schools in Kenema and Kailahun closed early. Exams have been postponed indefinitely. Now, although the official summer holiday is almost over, schools in the entire country may not re-open for months. No one knows when. It all depends on the situation and whether or not the Ebola outbreak is under control. For now, it doesn't look like that will happen anytime soon. Schools will remain closed in the hope to help halt the spread of the disease. 

See: http://news.sl/drwebsite/publish/article_200525996.shtml

Since summer schools have also been banned this means that children will be home for months. I am not really sure how that works for most families but I suppose they will have to manage. I suppose if both parents do work (often not the case) there are usually other relatives around that can look after the children, or the older children simply look after the younger ones. Seeing as many people prefer to stay home these days anyway, maybe they will cope. I know some parents are keen on making sure their children continue to learn, but there is only so much you can do at home without any materials. Some families don't allow their children to play outside anymore, just in case another child is sick on the compound. So, it sounds like most children will be staying indoors for a while. 

For those children (at least 70) who have been orphaned during this outbreak, the question is whether or not they will have the means to go back to school again. But there are of course more urgent questions at hand for them: Who will take them in? Who will provide for them? Will they receive the basics of shelter, food and water? 

This outbreak will take it's toll on many people, young and old, whether they get 'the disease' or not there will be a negative impact on many of the country's existing systems. This includes the educational system. 

This week and next, while many children all around the world are going back to school, let's remember the children in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. And let's remember their teachers as well, some of which have already succumbed to the disease. Hoping for a brighter future when this is all over.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ebola: A Survivor's story...

For weeks we have been waiting for stories from SURVIVORS with the hope that their experiences will encourage citizens who are showing symptoms to go to a hospital immediately. That way patients can be isolated and tested immediately, and if positive they can be transferred to a treatment centre. That's the only way we can stop further transmission as well as give people the best chance of survival. 

I know that in part we are not hearing survivor stories due to stigma and shame attached to having Ebola. Even though they survived it they had 'the disease'. Some of the survivors are being shunned by their villages and many have lost numerous family members and now have little support. However, with over 200 survivors now, we must be able to share more stories. I hope that more encouraging stories will be revealed over the next few weeks. I still think this should be a priority for those working in communications at Ministry level in order to help tackle some of the challenges we are facing such as sick people hiding in the communities or patients escaping from isolation units.

Here is the story of Musa, who survived Ebola but lost 15 close family members. His story is taken from the Awoko newspaper.

"Musa Turay of 35 A-Line, Nyandeyama New Site in Kenema city is one of the over one hundred survivors of the Ebola virus since its outbreak in the eastern region in March this year.  On Monday 4th August 2014, he spoke to Awoko explaining his experience with the virus.

Speaking with joy but with tears in his eyes, Musa said he took 28 days at the Ebola Treatment Center in Kenema and thanked God for saving his life as he lost some 15 close family members including his father. He said he has not set eyes on his mother and elder sister since his discharge from the treatment center. He said he is being told that his mother and sister are still being admitted at the Ebola Treatment Center in Kenema and he cannot visit them.

He explained that he is a footballer and that one morning he went on a jog to clear a fever he was experiencing. He said on his return, he adviced everyone around him not to touch him as he was suspecting haven contracted the Ebola virus. This came after he had lost his father and fourteen other close family members to the Ebola virus.
He said later on went on his own to the Kenema Government hospital even when he had complained of his condition to his two elder brothers. “I refused to even take a motorbike for fear of infecting the rider should I be positive with the virus,” he said. At the hospital, he said his blood sample was taken and asked to go home and return the following morning for the result. But that he insisted that he be given treatment. “I was feeling extremely hot inside me and my throat was dry making it hard for me to even swallow my saliva. I was feeling very uncomfortable and uneasy,” Musa said.
He said as he insisted for treatment to be administered to him, he was met by one Whiteman, he called William who after explaining his condition to him, immediately rushed him up to an empty bed in the Annex Ward and drip was administered. He said Williams provided him with twelve (12) packets of Grafton which he said he drank within the space of thirty minutes. He said he was also given medicines to prevent him from vomiting. He said he ended up taking drips for three days. He said when the result from his test came, he was Ebola positive.
“I was encouraged by the doctors and nurses to eat well and drink enough water and to rest,” he stated.
Musa said he and fellow patients were treated very well and they were given medicines on any other day and that each and every patient was assigned requested to drink more than three coconut jellies which were paid for by the nurses.

Musa appealed to government to increase the allowances of the nurses and ensure their maximum protection.
Musa said even though he lost his mobile phone at the hospital, he was feel happy that he survived as was certificated by the center and was given a certificate and cash amounting to Le 100, 000 (hundred thousand Leone).
He said he may have possibly contracted the virus at a hospital in Kenema where his younger sister had been admitted. He said all of his family members may have contracted the disease in that hospital.

He called on all and sundry to go to hospital and report whatever condition they feel. He said had he denied the existence of the virus or had feared going to the hospital, “I would have been dead by now, but because I rushed in quick, I was treated and I am well now,” he stated.
Musa Turay therefore call on the government and other humanitarian organization for educational assistant for him to enter college for a course which his late dad started the effort, I have no body to push me he cried.
Meanwhile, a nurse attached to the Kenema treatment center disclosed to this reporter that as at now, they are receiving Le 150, 000 as weekly allowance. She said that if this amount is increased to Le 250, 000 a week, “many nurses that are sitting on the fence will come to work” the nurse stated.

By Saffa Moriba
Monday August 11, 2014

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ebola: The impact on daily life...

Ebola. It comes up in every conversation in Freetown and is undoubtedly the number one topic these days. There is obviously more going on in Sierra Leone than Ebola but still it dominates our conversations. It now dominates our lives. That is because Ebola is seen as a threat to the country. Ebola has been confirmed in all but one district in Sierra Leone. There are now 757 confirmed cases, of which 22 are in Western Area (Freetown). It is no surprise that daily life in Freetown now revolves around the Ebola outbreak. 

There are posters in the streets displaying symptoms of Ebola and instructing people when to go to a health facility. There are buckets with chlorinated water outside of every restaurant, supermarket, shop, government building, bank and health facility in Freetown. People no longer shake hands or hug. People greet each other by knocking elbows or with a quick nod. There are vehicles with loud speakers driving around town sharing Ebola messages. Radio stations are talking about Ebola non-stop. SLBC hosts talk shows that revolve around Ebola and shows documentaries about the outbreaks in Zaire. NGOs have re-programmed and their work now revolves around Ebola prevention, contact tracing and management. You can't go anywhere in Freetown without realizing that Ebola is real.

Of course this is good: it increases sensitization, hopefully encourages early presentation to health facilities and keeps people up to date on the current situation. Of course, there are also many aspects of the outbreak that have negatively impacted life in Freetown. These are the hardships that people will need to endure during this fight. Most of the hardships are due to measures enforced by government to try to reduce transmission of the disease. All of these measures, have their consequences...

Schools were stopped early, summer schools have been cancelled and it is unclear if children can start school again in September. The Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) have been postponed indefinitely. CDC travel advice alerts and airlines suspending flights led to a mass exodus of expatriates. This in turn means that hotels and restaurants are struggling to maintain business in Freetown. The President ordered for nightclubs and cinema halls to shut down which has led to a much quieter night life in the city and a loss if income for people running those facilities. Prices are going up for both food and non-food items as people stock up in case the government announces a 'lock down' in the city. Many people spend their time at home. Public transport has been affected as okadas (public motorcycles) are not allowed to ride after 7pm at night and many taxi drivers have stopped running their services due to the fear of catching Ebola. 

For the health care sector it is an understatement to say that the impact is great. Not only have we lost exceptional doctors and nurses in the outbreak, but the system itself has suffered greatly. Some hospitals have been left virtually empty due to a combination of health care staff and patients being too afraid to go to the facility. This inevitably means that patients end up staying at home, attempting to self-treat and hope they get better. Some will, other won't. It is no doubt we will see an increase in deaths in the communities due to other illnesses. Some facilities are still functioning however, and their staff continue to provide the services needed. In some facilities the outbreak has led to increased infection control measures, an important aspect of care that has not received enough attention but in many, this is still lacking.

Honestly, it's hard to remember right now what daily life in Freetown was like before the outbreak. Obviously for many people it has always been a struggle. Most people live from day to day. Now the hardships are even greater. I am praying that someday soon life will get better in Freetown, and Sierra Leone as a whole. And my prayer is that my Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues will be filled with grace, peace, protection and endurance as they continue this fight.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Ebola: Stay at Home Day...

Anyone who has been in Freetown will know that empty streets like this are highly unusual. I am not sure if I have ever seen the streets this empty. This past Monday, the 4th of August was declared a "Stay at Home Day" by the President of Sierra Leone. At the time the President made the announcement, no one really knew what he meant. So what did it mean?

Pray. Reflect. Educate.

Basically, almost every citizen in Sierra Leone stayed indoors that day or at least on their own compound. Meanwhile health workers and volunteers went from compound to compound sensitizing people. Most importantly, I think people started realizing what this virus is and that they need to report sick people to the hospital. And hopefully, while people were in their own homes, maybe, just maybe, for 24 hours, the Ebola virus was not being spread as actively. 

I think overall the day was a success. I think it showed that the citizens of Sierra Leone are serious about this and that they are ready to obey Presidential orders. I believe that many people were educated that day and I hope we start seeing some positive impact of that. Things need to start changing. Let's hope that this "Stay at Home Day" brought about some behavioral change!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Ebola: State of Emergency...

On the 30th of July His Excellency President Ernest Bai Koroma declared a State of Emergency in Sierra Leone.

"The disease is beyond the scope of any one country, or community to defeat. Its social, economic, psychological and security implications require scaling up measures at international, national, inter-agency and community levels. Extra-ordinary challenges require extra-ordinary measures. The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) poses an extra-ordinary challenge to our nation. Consequently, and in line with the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act Number 6 of 1991, I hereby proclaim a State of Public Emergency to enable us take a more robust approach to deal with the Ebola outbreak."

So, there we are. The President has spoken. Action needs to take place. Fast. 

We've all read the stories and seen the pictures. People are dying. People are hiding. Ebola is spreading. Health workers are affected. Dr. Khan passed away. Health workers feel unprotected. Travel causes spread.  Flights are suspended. American Ebola patients are evacuated. Regular patients are not showing up to hospitals. A stay at home day. More flights suspended. Expatriates pulling out. New cases. New districts. Some survivors. More new cases.

So, what needs to be done? 

Contact tracing, sensitization, protection of staff. I would say those are the three main areas that Sierra Leone needs to tackle quickly (amongst a number of other areas of course). Without contact tracing, transmission will continue. Without sensitization, sick people will not come forward and they will continue to transmit the disease and die in the communities. Without protection, health workers will not carry out their duties. 

More trained contact tracers. More vehicles. Social mobilization. Radio messages. Interviews with survivors. Famous people speaking to their peers. More protective equipment. Training on infection control. Implementation of universal precautions. Allowances. Supervision. Positive stories.

It sounds straightforward but it is tough. It requires a massive influx of expertise, manpower and resources. It demands changes in attitudes of health workers and in behavior of the general public. It relies on excellent communication between stakeholders and strict measures to be put in place by government. All of this needs to be accomplished in an already fragile health care system and in a society in which many people are living day by day trying to make ends meet and a culture in which family bonds are tight and caring for your sick relative at home is the norm. It’s a challenge but I think it is possible.

WHO says "this outbreak is spreading faster than efforts to control it". Let's pray that in the next few days the efforts to control this outbreak are multiplied and speed up ten times more than the disease itself spreads and we start making some headway. It is possible. It has to be. There is no other option. 

~ Act Justly. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly. micah 6:8 ~