Witnessing yet again the challenging dynamics of the Ebola outbreak unfolding in West Africa, the United Nations envoy coordinating the global response visited Sierra Leone today, where he reported efforts to halt the virus in former hotspot Kenema are starting to pay off, while some 200 kilometres away, Port Loko is now “getting slammed”.
Continuing his tour through the front lines of the crisis, Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), stopped in Kenema, Sierra Leone's third largest city, where he said the strategy to defeat the disease is having some success.
“The first place I heard about Ebola was in Kenema and all the terrible things happening there – health care workers getting sick, large numbers of people getting the disease,” yet today, he was pleased to see that Kenema is making progress.
“Once again, all the elements of a successful strategy to defeat Ebola [are] in place and having an effect – the safe burials, the case management and treatment facilities, the community mobilization – what we have seen in Kenema is a big drop in the case loads.”
Mr. Banbury said that there is an excellent International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) treatment facility in Kenema where a large number of beds were empty “because we're really seeing the caseload drop.” That facility is receiving patients from outside Kenema, from as afar away as Freetown, he added.
“So it's again the same lesson that we saw in Guéckédou in Guinea – the strategy is working, we just need to expand it wherever we can,” he said referring to his visit yesterday to neighbouring Guinea, which, along with Liberia, is also among the countries most-affected by the current Ebola outbreak.
The need to expand the strategy became starkly clear during Mr. Banbury's next stop, in Port Loko, “which is getting hit really hard now, it's just getting slammed.” He said that there are more cases coming in every day. The capacity of the holding centres is absolutely full, with no beds to spare.
“There's a holding centre there with a capacity of 64, they have over 100 patients in it now. That's dangerous to the health care staff. And we just need to get more resources into Port Loko now,” he said.
“One of the big problems: we don't have partners to run the care centres. We need [non-governmental organizations] NGOs and others to come in and run these facilities. We're putting in place the logistics capabilities, we're building the care centres, we're getting the equipment, everything we need to go in them,” he explained, but underscored that patients are there in far too great numbers.
A troubling consequence of the shortage of sickbeds and treatment facilities, said Mr. Banbury, is that in some communities, the locals are starting to use put patients into schools.
“There's no testing of the patients there, so we don't know who actually has Ebola and who doesn't – it's a risk to the patients who don't have it, it's a risk to the local community, the people who are trying to care for them.”
“We need proper facilities, including community care facilities, in order to get this disease under control, so a big, big concern now is we don't have enough partners on the ground,” he declared.
Turning to a more positive aspect of the trip, Mr. Banbury said that meeting survivors of Ebola in Kenema was “one of the happiest moments that I've had since I started this job more than a month ago”. He said it appeared that most of the people were in their 30s and 40s, “and it's just so inspiring…knowing that people can survive getting this disease, especially if they get early treatment.”
“They're disease-free, they have zero Ebola left in them, they're of no risk whatsoever to their families and communities. It's an aspiration now that we have to get more people surviving from this disease by being treated in good facilities early on in the disease.”
However, he said that today had also been one of his most somber, as it had included a visit to a graveyard outside the Kenema Eboal Treatment Unit, were there were a large number of graves, each marked with a name and an age.
“There were empty graves, pre-dug, that were going to be filled by someone who was probably in that facility as we were there. It just really made me…think about [the importance of] the work that UNMEER and all the actors are doing. It's all about that. It's trying to make sure those graves don't get filled.”