Friday, 12 December 2014

WHO Media Release: Sierra Leone reacts swiftly in the face of desperate need

I am reprinting in full, with permission, what I think is a really well written "story behind the numbers". These stories provide invaluable context around the various individual human and community tragedies that are constantly occurring during this epidemic. They also highlight the many difficulties faced by those trying to help people, track and contain spread and and collate all the numbers. Those numbers may be dispassionate in their quantification of aspects of the epidemic, but they are so important to guide timely aid to the right areas and at the right scale

Freetown 10 December 2014 - Racing to fact check an ominous spike in Ebola cases from the remote diamond district of Kono in eastern Sierra Leone, bordering Guinea, a World Health Organization rapid response team found a worse-than-expected scene. WHO and the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) joined forces with the Sierra Leone National Ebola Response Center (NERC) and Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS) to sound the alarm and are now rallying all-comers in a massive build up to contain this burgeoning Ebola outbreak which ran the risk of continuing to grow and remaining hidden as world attention focuses on urban centers.

“Our team met heroic doctors and nurses at their wits end, exhausted burial teams and lab techs, all doing the best they could but they simply ran out of resources and were overrun with gravely ill people,” explains Dr Olu Olushayo, WHO National Coordinator, Ebola Epidemic Response. “In districts like Kono, with moderate transmission confined to limited villages and chiefdoms, the best chance of eliminating transmission is through aggressive and comprehensive case investigation and contact tracing,” he said. Scattered villages in 8 of the 15 chiefdoms are affected.

Reacting on intel from the Ministry of Health of Sierra Leone, WHO sent a seasoned field epidemiologist to Kono 10 days ago to tease out whether reported Ebola cases told the whole story. Cases go unreported for a variety of reasons and are exacerbated when overwhelmed and under-resourced frontline workers are unable to reach remote areas to get the truth from reluctant villagers. The surveillance officers had no vehicles. WHO and CDC quickly sent more investigators and rugged trucks.

They uncovered a grim scene. In 11 days, 2 teams buried 87 bodies, including a nurse, an ambulance driver, and a janitor drafted into removing bodies as they piled up at the only area hospital, ill-equipped to deal with the dangerous pathogen. In the 5 days before the team arrived, 25 people died in the hastily cordoned off section of the main hospital serving as a makeshift Ebola holding center.

As of 9 December 2014, this district of over 350 000 people officially has 119 reported cases. Upon hearing the WHO findings, Dr. Amara Jambai, MoHS Director of Disease Prevention and Control harkened a local saying to describe what remains yet to be discovered, "we are only seeing the ears of the hippo."

Help is arriving daily. The NERC and MoHS for the Government of Sierra Leone and UNMEER with WHO support are connecting ready-to-help partners with an all-out multi-agency response to critical needs on the ground. WHO field staff are sharing their expertise with surveillance investigators, community mobilizers, infection controllers, and coordinators. The doctors from Partners in Health and Wellbody Alliance who supported the overwhelmed holding center, are willing to stay on board to support care at the source in outlying health posts. The International Federation of the Red Cross will build a new Ebola Treatment Center on a tight timetable, while they disinfect the hospital with MoHS and create a temporary safe holding unit. The IFRC Kenema Ebola Treatment Center will take Kono patients until these solutions are in place. CDC has staff on the ground. UNMEER has lent it’s helicopters to the effort in support of the UN family (WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, WFP, and others) engaged in building up capacity for staff and volunteers through training, materials and logistical support. International Rescue Committee is supporting infection prevention activities in the district. Funders such as DIFD and USAID are making much of the fast response possible. The race is on in this frontier fight against the virus, as Ebola responders dash to get ahead of the epidemic rather than chasing its tail.