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Surviving Ebola

f28fdca6-d688-49fa-b56c-604a112df2dd2012 mentee, Shaunagh Connaire, recently spent two weeks in Sierra Leone documenting the lives of the extraordinarily brave health workers battling to contain the deadly virus, Ebola.

Her documentary was broadcast inUnreported World’ (Channel 4, Friday 26th September, 1930). She says, “It’s a grim tale, with emotional scenes, but an important one.” 

Here she describes her experience of the virus:

It was mid July and although the Ebola outbreak hadn’t quite caught the world’s attention, it positively had mine. And it was all I could think about.

I stepped off the plane with my director Wael Dabbous into a clammy Freetown airport. A stout man with a big smile greeted us, he’d been sent by our fixer to help us through customs. Unknowingly I shook his hand.

I’d been in the country for just fifteen minutes and already I’d broken the cardinal rule that was to keep me safe from Ebola over the next two weeks.

In Sierra Leone nearly 600 people have already died from this deadly virus. It’s spread through direct contact with bodily fluids and the ‘no touch’ rule is how you stay alive. This, and keeping my distance from everyone I met was my invisible biohazard protective cloak.

My destination was Kailahun, a district bordering Liberia and Guinea in the eastern part of the country. This was the heartland of the Ebola zone and I was headed for the only Ebola treatment centre in the country, set up just three weeks before by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

On one of the first days filming, I met Manjo Lamin, a local Ebola surveillance officer working for the Ministry of Health. A charming man who exerts every ounce of energy he has into containing the disease, Manjo calls himself an Ebola survivor. He’d tested positive for Ebola a month before in a lab in neighbouring Kenema, spent a few nights at the MSF isolation ward in Kailahun and then tested negative for the virus there. I’d found a local hero.

Manjo had received a tip off about a young lady showing signs of Ebola in a village nearby. This girl’s father in law had already died of Ebola.

Kadiatu, just 25 years of age and the mother of four, was crunched down in pain. Manjo knew that by taking her away from her loved ones, he was helping to contain the worst Ebola outbreak in history. But in this district of half a million people, there are only four ambulances available. Kadiatu was instead taken to the MSF treatment centre in a hearse.

For every patient like Kadiatu, there may be approximately ten contacts. That’s ten people who could potentially be infected and ten people who could easily contaminate others. When I was on the ground in July it was clear that the situation was so much worse than what was being reported. Experts now believe that the epidemic is growing so large that the traditional principles of isolating the sick and monitoring their contacts may no longer be practical.

Back at the MSF clinic, brave health workers scurried around to receive this new highly contagious patient. It was a distressing time for both patient and doctors. Kadiatu knew that her father in law had already died here and the doctors recognised that she’d only a 30% chance of survival.

I went back to visit Kadiatu on several occasions at the Ebola centre. Each time I felt helpless. As was protocol, I had to stay behind a barrier and keep my distance when all I wanted to do was comfort her in some way. I grasped quickly that this could be the worst part of the disease for families in West Africa. Not the ghastly symptoms of the virus but the fact that you’re being told to stand back and watch while your loved ones suffer.

As time passed, I witnessed entire families arriving at the clinic; Ebola riots in neighbouring Kenema; and too many young children dying. Every day I tried to remain detached and contain my emotions. I could not. At night I was engrossed by my own paranoia that I’d somehow contracted Ebola. I had not.

As I was leaving Sierra Leone, the president declared a public health emergency. He’d finally acknowledged that his country was in crisis. Now we’re six months into the outbreak and the CDC are predicting as many as 500,000 Ebola cases by the end of January. What was very much an avoidable epidemic may now become endemic in a part of the world already crippled by poverty.

Shaunagh Connaire is a reporter for Channel 4’s critically acclaimed foreign affairs series ‘Unreported World’. The director was Wael Dabbous.

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