When humanity exceeds fear

Children orphaned by Ebola in Bambali District in Sierra Leone

Children orphaned by Ebola in Bambali District in Sierra Leone

Sydney Kawadza Senior Features Writer
Farai Tumbare is a brave man. The 37-year-old Harare man has been exposed to the latest Ebola scare to hit the world after joining the World Health Organisation as a logistics consultant in October last year.

His story is intriguing but working in this unstable environment has taught him some lessons, which he believes can be helpful to the world, especially in fighting epidemics like the Ebola outbreak.

Having successfully applied for the job, Tumbare was posted right into the Ebola hotspot of Makeni, Bombali District of Sierra Leone where the epidemic had ravished the district.

In an interview recently, Tumbare said he had since overcome his fears of Ebola and was prepared to fight it until Sierra Leone was free of the disease.

He was in Harare for a break after working in Bombali district for the past three months.

“I was apprehensive when I was posted to Makeni. All my colleagues were comfortable working from Freetown but as soon as I got my orientation I was posted straight into the hotspot.

“I am a family man and I would like to admit that when I went to Sierra Leone I had my return ticket with me because I did not want to risk my life,” he said.

Being the first person to visit the area while preparing logistics for the WHO team that was going to fight Ebola in Bombali, Tumbare was naturally anxious.

“The situation was heartbreaking when I got to Makeni. There were new infections and deaths on a daily basis and people were even afraid to go to that area.

“The first incident that really touched my heart and increased my resolve to be part of the team fighting the disease was when we encountered a case in which a five-year-old lost eight family members and neighbours would throw food at the child through the window,” he said.

He added: “I have a four-year-old child and I was imagining that he could be in the same situation. That incident with the boy was a turning point in my life and I decided to help authorities in Sierra Leone fight the disease.”

But the experiences in Makeni have also been an eye opener for Tumbare who believes he is safe in his working environment.

“Our priority is safety first when we are working. This includes ensuring that there are not more than three people when we are travelling to reduce contact as Ebola is spread mainly through contact.

“When we get to an area where there is a suspected case we wear personal protective equipment. This is specialised equipment and similar to the suits used by spaceman and it is so protective one cannot wear it for more than an hour,” he said.

The WHO team and other workers working in such an environment are also equipped with medical kits to fight any infection.

“The best I have learnt is to avoid developing a fever. There are very poor sanitation facilities in Sierra Leone. The Ebola mortality rate is very high, between 60-90 percent of the victims die of the disease and people are afraid of contracting the disease.”

There is no known cure for Ebola.

“The best way to enhance one’s survival is oral rehydration and one can survive if he or she is treated after experiencing the first symptoms. Yes there is no cure but I have known more than 200 people who have survived and would not get the disease for the next 10 years,” Tumbare said.

He, however, added that those who have survived have suffered from stigma because people are afraid of getting in contact with them.

“Treatment for Ebola is symptomatic and quite similar to HIV but more needs to be done especially with social mobilisation. There was also no need for the country to shut its doors to the affected countries. I am happy the travelling restrictions have been lifted.

“It took me 35 hours to get from Zimbabwe to Sierra Leone on a flight that can take only eight hours. There is need for countries to work together in similar cases. Travel restrictions actually affected our rescue missions because the restrictions affected the amount of help that could be given to the affected areas,” he said.

According to the WHO’s Global Alert and Response, the first confirmed case in Sierra Leone was a young woman who was admitted to a government hospital in Kenema following a miscarriage on 24 May, 2014.

A health worker suspected Ebola, given the outbreak in neighbouring Guinea. She was tested for Ebola on May 24 and placed in isolation on May 25; the results were positive.

Tracking of her source of infection pointed to an earlier event and told a very different story. The vicinity around Kenema was home to a well-known and widely-respected traditional healer.

The WHO added that the traditional healer’s famous healing powers were also known across the border in Guinea.

As the outbreak in Guinea continued to swell, desperate patients sought her care.

Predictably, the healer became infected with the Ebola virus and died. Mourners came by the hundreds, also from other nearby towns, to honour her memory by participating in the traditional funeral and burial ceremony.

Quick investigations by local health authorities suggested that participation in that funeral could be linked to as many as 365 Ebola deaths.

Meanwhile, in Guinea, 60 percent of all cases had been linked to traditional burial practices.

The WHO added that by mid-June, an explosive outbreak was clearly under way in Kenema, and the government hospital could no longer cope. Several nurses working there were quickly infected, and 12 of them died.

As in Guinea, the virus spread quickly and widely, with a large proportion of doctors and nurses among the dead – severely depleting response capacity.

Also the virus marched into the capital city, Freetown, where it took advantage of overcrowded living conditions and fluid population movements to grow in explosive numbers.

The WHO adds that a breakthrough in the scientific understanding of Sierra Leone’s outbreak came on August 28, when the journal Science published the results of a major surveillance study of Ebola virus genomes involving 99 complete virus sequences that traced the start of the outbreak and its further spread.

No such massive study had ever been undertaken before.

Today, according to the WHO, Sierra Leone’s most urgent needs include opening up more Ebola care facilities – which means more trained staff to meet a severe shortage.

Controlling the spread of the disease will also require stronger district surveillance and epidemiology, contact tracing and burial teams.

Statistics from the Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation, as at February 2, 2015, indicate that about 2 203 people had survived the disease and had been discharged from hospital while only 17 new cases have been confirmed.

The government has also recorded 8 073 confirmed cases since the outbreak with 2 911 cumulative deaths.

Consequently, Tumbare believes Africa is winning the fight against Ebola.

“Suspected cases are usually quarantined but I think it is a difficult practice because even a person without the disease can get it from sharing the same room with an affected person.

“However, we have had reports of studies on vaccines which are at an advanced stage. We are however not sure of the results, associated costs and how the vaccines can be distributed. All we can do is to wait patiently,” he said.

He added: “The team in Bombali district has done quite well. The district had been quarantined with limited people movement with only soldiers and nurses aloud to move around,” he said.

Tumbare added that schools, shops and transport systems had ground to a halt.

“The people use motorbikes for transport and these were not allowed on the streets after six o’clock in the evening and shops were open for basic commodities only and would be shut during the curfew hours.

“However, the curfew and quarantine have been lifted and people are moving freely. The people are now able to work for the development of their economy,” he said.

Tumbare, who holds a Masters Degree in Humanitarian Logistics and Management (Switzerland) and a Bachelor of Science in HIV and Aids Management and Community Development from Chinhoyi University, understands the anxiety his job causes to his family and friends.

“Understandably, my family is worried. My mother does not want me to go back to Sierra Leone. The news that comes from media organisations is quite graphic and sometimes scary but the situation on the ground is different.

“My wife and children are sometime skeptical but I have talked to them and they understand. The only problem is when I spend only four days after having been away from them in the past three months,” he said.

Tumbare worked in the Harare City Council’s fire department as a paramedic before his posting to Sierra Leone. His duties today involve being the first WHO worker in an affected area where he prepares the logistics for the team that would fight the epidemic.

“I go in and prepare their accommodation, water and food supplies, internet and all logistics necessary when we go into an area. I am basically, the first guy in and the last one out,” he said.

The team working in an affected area includes a doctor, infection, prevention and control officer, epidemiologist and contact tracing officer.

The WHO provides technical support to local structures such as primary healthcare in collaboration with a country’s health ministry while seeking to capacitate the local health system for self-sustenance.

Feedback: sydney.kawadza@zimpapers.co.zw