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Ebola outbreak "biggest threat" since civil war

25 September 2014

The head of the Sierra Leone Red Cross has branded the Ebola outbreak the “biggest threat” facing his country since the end of the civil war.

In a candid and heartfelt interview last week, Emmanuel Tommy, the secretary general of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, said his country had been paralysed by the deadly disease and made an impassioned plea for more help.

“Ebola is feared more than the war,” Tommy said. “The rate at which Ebola is killing people is immense. The population is so fearful.”

Ebola has claimed 2,917 lives across West Africa, including 597 deaths in Sierra Leone, as of 21 September, according to the World Health Organisation.  

Nowhere to run

Sierra Leone emerged from a decade of civil war in 2002. “If you knew fighters were in one part of the country, people would move and they would stay in camps,” Tommy said.

“But today, Ebola is all over the country, so you don’t know where to run to. During the war, people would flee Sierra Leone and go to neighbouring countries as refugees.

“Two of our neighbouring countries are now affected [by Ebola] – Guinea and Liberia. So where does the population go? People are locked in to this big quagmire of a disease, not knowing what tomorrow holds.”

The Red Cross is working across all countries affected by Ebola – Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.

In Sierra Leone, Red Cross staff and volunteers are working tirelessly to fight the disease. The response is focused on five core elements:

  1. Raising awareness of the disease
  2. Finding people who have come into contact with Ebola so they can be tested for the disease and quarantined if necessary
  3. Treating patients
  4. Safely burying Ebola’s victims
  5. Working with communities and survivors to reduce stigma

New treatment centre

A new Ebola treatment centre has just been opened by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on the outskirts of Kenema city, one of the epicentres of the outbreak in Sierra Leone.

The centre can accommodate 60 patients and is staffed by 19 international workers and 80 national employees. Among its first patients was an 11-year-old girl from the capital Freetown.

Support from donors has enabled the Red Cross to open the centre, which is due to operate for one year. However, there is currently not enough funding to ensure it stays open for one year.

Additional funds are also required to support the deployment of more health-care workers, as well as the tools, supplies and equipment needed to carry out treatment.  

‘If we don’t help, who will?’

Many people have contracted Ebola through contact with the bodies of those who have succumbed to the disease. They remain infectious and have to be buried according to strict procedures.

Red Cross volunteers, who live in the communities blighted by the disease, are responsible for this undertaking.

“The guys burying dead bodies, in one month they can bury 100 people. It’s really tough,” said Tommy.

“I remember when I was in Kailahun, one of the epicentres in Sierra Leone, and I spoke with our volunteers. I said to them ‘this is a really tough job, a really tough thing to do. And you guys have come out to volunteer’.

“I remember one or two telling me that ‘if we don’t do it, who will?’ Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to keep the communities safe; somebody has to work to stop the spread of this deadly disease.”

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