‘We are dying. Where is the world?’

2014-09-21 15:00

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On Friday, Sierra Leone started a three-day national shutdown for a house-to-house Ebola sensitisation campaign, deploying thousands of government staff, NGO workers and volunteers in an attempt to identify infections and educate a frightened public.

As the country programme manager for the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), I am a member of the rapid response team during the three-day shutdown.

There is no hospital or clinic that is untouched by this disease, and we are losing healthcare workers every day. AHF lost Dr Khan, our medical director, to Ebola in August, and his passing has left a vacuum in our organisation that cannot easily be described, let alone filled. He was a leading expert in his field and our country is in dire need of medical professionals if we are to halt the spread of this disease.

He provided medical care for our patients in the AHF Kenema clinic before this pandemic began to ravage our country. Our ability to effectively treat patients is crippled because he was not only providing care for HIV patients, but was a mentor for our staff. It is likely to be very difficult to recruit a replacement for him, even if the Ebola crisis passes. Where will we find another doctor who will be as committed and passionate as Dr Khan was in our HIV response?

We have also lost a National Aids Control Programme lab/CD4 technician to Ebola, leaving another gap in our disintegrating healthcare system.

Where is the world? Our doctors are dying. Our nurses are dying. Our lab technicians are dying, and help does not come. The only medical professionals getting life-saving treatment are foreign nationals, people from America and Europe.

Dr Olivet Buck contracted Ebola and despite pleas to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for medevac to Germany, where a facility was waiting to admit her, she was denied the opportunity and left to die. One WHO lab tech contracted Ebola in Kenema and the entire team evacuated.

Most samples are now sent to the overburdened, underresourced Kenema hospital, where the lab is located – a hospital where dozens of staff have become infected and many have died.

If we have no doctors and no nurses, who will treat our people? How will they survive this? Our hospitals lack basic medical supplies like gloves, face masks and boots.

Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross are on the front lines of Ebola, running the isolation units, treating the sick.

The AHF has distributed $450?000 (R5?million) worth of equipment and supplies, sharing with national facilities in Freetown and Kenema. We have recruited volunteers to trace our patients and ensure they receive treatment, and we are part of the psychosocial support team in Kenema for the three-day campaign.

NGOs are doing all we can, but we don’t command military infrastructure, we don’t have endless resources and thousands of trained personnel. NGOs cannot stop Ebola without help, and help is not coming.

Maybe it is because we are African or my country is too small or too poor, or because we have no oil. Maybe it is because world leaders can’t find Sierra Leone on a map and this crisis has become one more in a series of all too familiar African tragedies.

There have been more confirmed cases of Ebola in the past 21 days than in the entire six months that preceded them. Families continue to bury the dead, risking infection because we don’t have the staff or resources to help them. Our staff are afraid. Their families are afraid of them when they go home.

The stigma around this disease has seen our African brothers close their borders to us and the realities of this disease is killing our most valuable weapon in the fight to stop Ebola: our healthcare workers. They are dying and the world is letting them. We are on our own and we are running out of time.

» Jambawai is the country programme manager for the Aids Healthcare Foundation in Sierra Leone

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