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Sierra Leone: a treatment centre for a country stricken by Ebola

Our former CEO Justin Forsyth wrote about his visit to Sierra Leone, where Save the Children opened an 80-bed treatment centre to tackle Ebola

The Ebola treatment centre in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, which was built by the UK government and is being run by Save the Children
(photo: Louis Leeson/Save the Children)

Save the Children is running extensive programmes across Sierra Leone (and Liberia and Guinea), from Ebola prevention programmes to child protection and education.

From today, we are also stepping out of our comfort zone to run the Kerry Town Ebola treatment centre, an 80-bed facility with an impressive testing laboratory and over 300 staff, that has been built by the Royal Engineers and paid for by UKaid.

Everyday heroes

I left Sierra Leone with mixed emotions: moved and inspired by the people, including community health workers, other locals and Save the Children staff who are in the trenches, fighting the spread of Ebola.

These are everyday heroes, putting their lives on the line to save their communities. But I’m also deeply sad. I’ve heard so many stories of loss and grief. Overall though, I don’t feel despair but determination to do more.

Emma and Kamara

On my last day I met Emma and Kamara, both 17. Emma told me how her father became ill, followed by her mother who worked as a nurse. They both died – as did Emma’s three brothers and one sister. Emma is the sole survivor of her family.

Her home was burnt down (apparently to “protect” the community) – with all her belongings. She now has nothing left – not even a photograph. Certain phrases are lodged in my mind – she said “Ebola has hurt me so much”, and she now feels “completely alone”.

Kamara also lost his dad, stepmother, brother and sister. We sat talking in a deserted school (they have been closed since March); they both told me how they were shunned by their community. Emma said she was called “Ebola girl”.

With tears streaming down their faces (and mine) they told me how people were too afraid to talk to them, and how they feared for the future. I wanted to reach out and hug them – but of course, because of Ebola I couldn’t.

Both children are now part of the Children’s Forum Network, an amazing group supported by Save the Children that gives emotional support and love as well as practical support.  There are now thousands of orphans in the region. We need to do more to help them.

Enormous fear for children…

These stories brought home the human tragedy of Ebola to me. Below the surface of normality there is enormous fear. Every family worries about who their children touch and how to keep them safe.

Save the Children staff say their biggest fear is coming to work and leaving their children at home. Some of our staff have lost loved ones but still come into the office every day, working until late in the night, to try to tackle this crisis.

… But aid is getting through

I am pleased to report the efforts of the Sierra Leonean government and people, supported by key donors like the UK, are making a difference.

Aid is getting through. In Freetown bodies are now being buried within 24 hours – vital, given that around 60% of infections stem from traditional burial practices. The Ebola call centre, manned by students, is ensuring cases are isolated quickly and dead bodies removed safely.

In the Kerry Town treatment centre

The Ebola treatment centre at Kerry Town that Save the Children is running
(photo: Louis Leeson/Save the Children)

I was hugely impressed by the work on the Kerry Town treatment centre. When I was there staff were going through rigorous training in the run-up to the opening.

They were practising putting on and removing their protective suits, again and again – they can’t touch the skin so it’s immensely tricky as well as dangerous. I walked through the centre as if I were a patient, escorted by Paula Sansom and Andy Mason, two of our key leaders.

First, I entered a waiting area, then triage, where patients will be assessed and their blood taken to be tested. If you are a suspected case, you are either put in a ‘wet’ (diarrhoea and vomiting) or ‘dry’ ward. When confirmed, you are put in another ward.

If you survive (and sadly only 30-40% of people do), then you walk out the other end in a few weeks. If not, there is a morgue with a Save the Children imam and priest to oversee the bodies and ensure dignity.

A heartbreaking sight

One sight affected me more than any other: tiny cots for child patients.

It is heart-wrenching to think of parents unable to hold their dying babies, or of little children who aren’t infected who are separated from their infected parents. Children, if they survive, must find the Ebola treatment centres traumatising – full of staff in full protective suits.

The Ebola response is not just about treatment centres

Ebola is also having a huge impact on education and wider health issues such as malaria. No children have attended school since March and pregnant mums are avoiding health clinics and hospitals.

One clinic I visited said the admissions had plummeted from 80 a day to 20 – a worrying figure when we know that the UN estimates that 800,000 mums across the region will give birth in the coming year and those who avoid clinics and give birth at home are at much greater risk of dying in childbirth from complications.

One of our teams in Sierra Leone shows children and adults how to protect themselves from Ebola and stop the spread
(photo: Louis Leeson/Save the Children)

Despite these challenges, there is hope. There is a determination to win against Ebola and confidence that winning is possible. I have been very inspired by the work of community health workers going house to house, educating people on how to keep their children safe and on simple measures like hand-washing as well as the dangers of washing dead bodies in the traditional way.

We are behind the curve

All these efforts are beginning to have an impact and you can see progress in some districts. However, while there are different views on how bad Ebola will get before it levels off or declines, here in Sierra Leone it feels as though things are getting worse.

We are behind the curve.  There will need to be more action and effort before we beat this terrible disease.  That is why we and our partners have combined to launch a DEC appeal.

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