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No room for complacency in fight against Ebola

February 12, 2015 By Donal Brown

NERC CEO, Retired Major Alfred Palo Conteh
NERC CEO, Retired Major Alfred Palo Conteh

We heard last week that for the first time in 2015 the number of new Ebola cases went up at the end of January. The World Health Organisation reported that 80 of the 124 new cases were in Sierra Leone.

There is no doubt that we have turned a corner in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. In general the infection rate is falling and we can be cautiously optimistic that we are on track to beat this terrible disease. The leadership of His Excellency the President and others such as Palo Conteh as CEO of the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) have been outstanding. So have the many leaders and medical officers in the districts and workers across the country in the “Ebola Army” be they RSALF, burial teams, health care workers or contact tracers, to name a few. As the Head of the UK Ebola Task Force in Sierra Leone, I am proud of all the work the Government and people of Sierra Leone have done to fight this horrible disease.

The rise in infections at the end of January makes it very clear however, that there is still a long way to go. I believe we now have another challenge on our hands, the fight against complacency. Too many people are letting down their guard and think the fight is won; it is not.

The gains Sierra Leone has made against Ebola have been hard won. It would be too easy to become blinded by the progress and forget just how quickly this disease spreads and destroys lives. We forget at our peril that this whole crisis began from one single infection. Just one unreported case or one illegal burial could be enough to take us back to where we were just a few short months ago when people were dying in the streets and ambulance sirens could be heard all day and all night in Freetown.

This prospect is unimaginable to all of us but it is not impossible. Until we completely defeat this outbreak and the infection rate falls to zero there is always the potential for it to rise again.

This is why the UK remains absolutely determined to help the Government of Sierra Leone to reach zero cases as quickly as possible. The UK has already supported more than half of all the beds available for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone including building six 100-bed high quality treatment centres, funded over 100 burial teams, trained 4,000 frontline staff, help set up the NERC, provided three labs to test one third of all samples collected nationally, and delivered over one million PPE suits and 150 vehicles. We are also working in eight of the worst affected districts supporting the District Ebola Response Centres (DERCs) to find hotspots of transmission and the tail end of the disease.

Sierra Leone has all the necessary tools in place to kill this disease – labs, treatment centres, ambulances and expertise – but it is Sierra Leone’s local leaders, councillors and Chiefs who now hold the knowledge and power to ultimately contain, control and defeat this disease.  They need to encourage people and communities to come forward and report cases and ensure their dead are buried safely, otherwise this disease will not go away.

We have seen great examples of community leadership. In Kono a neighbourhood surveillance team has been established to help communities understand Ebola and give them the courage to seek appropriate treatment. This is work that the UK’s Department for International Development has supported, but it has been owned by the community and ultimately its success is down to them.

It is from this district engagement that we know the major challenges to success against Ebola are still finding sick people as soon as they are infected and most importantly stopping illegal hidden burials and washing of the dead. One person hiding a sick individual or conducting an unsafe burial not only kills their families and relatives but also many of their community. Safe burials are absolutely key to reducing transmission and the UK has put significant support into establishing fleets of burial teams to ensure corpses are buried quickly, safely and with dignity.

While talk of recovery is appealing, it should not distract from the fight against Ebola. We still have a long and bumpy road ahead of us. Everybody has a duty to follow the safe practices and the bylaws that have been put in place for our protection. The moment we let our guard drop, is the moment Ebola will come back to find us. One case is one case too many.

We’ve come so far in the fight against this disease. Now we need to finish the job so our schools and clinics can open; businesses can get up and running again and Sierra Leone can get back on track. If we keep fighting and working together, then we can defeat this deadly disease for good.

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