Local heroine fights Ebola

2014-09-05 00:00

font-family:"Georgia","serif";color:#666666">A PIETERMARITZBURG woman has a key role in co-ordinating the two main players in Sierra Leone’s war on Ebola.

Sharon Ekambaram is head of the programmes department at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — Doctors Without Borders in English — and is acting as the officer "facilitating communication" between the disease-hit country’s health department and the medical NGO, which is leading treatment in west Africa.Meanwhile, four South African experts from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases are camped nearby in Freetown — processing up to 150 blood samples every 48 hours, to identify patients who require strict isolation nursing and treatment.

In a letter this week, the team’s leader, Professor Janusz Paweska, said the local electricity supply was so unreliable at maintaining the “negative pressure” biosafety chamber they work in that they needed to ship a generator out from South Africa.

He added: “Specimens from suspected [Ebola cases are] often packed in improvised secondary containers.”

Paweska said that, last week, the “proudly South African” team were visited by Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma and that guards armed with automatic rifles guard their lab.

Maritzburger Ekambaram, a veteran Aids treatment activist, is currently the sole South African field worker on the front lines of the epidemic, after three others returned last month.

An MSF spokesperson said she was performing “a hugely important role”, but said Ekambaram could not be reached for comment.

MSF communications director Borrie la Grange said field workers were required to return after short spells to avoid life-threatening mistakes such as “needle-stick” injuries due to exhaustion after “12- to 16-hour shifts every day.”

He said the epidemic was “not under control anywhere”.

One of the returnees, Dr Stefan Kruger, painted a shocking picture of the epidemic on his diary blog: “We continue to receive terribly ill patients. My nurse patient withers away as time passes. His body finally gives in.

“We become accustomed to … entire households being erased from their family trees one by one.”

However, he said it was a “magical occurrence” when a patient recovered and was ­discharged. “In a moment of unadulterated euphoria staff members abandon their work. There is singing and dancing and ­everyone joins in.”

Professor Shabir Madhi, executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said research on Ebola samples at their “level 4” biocontainment lab in Sandringham, Gauteng, had led directly to the team’s “exponentially increasing” the testing rate in Freetown.

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