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Report: Ebola - Sierra Leone

Sierra Leonean hospital reels from Ebola death of Spanish missionary, but hope on the horizon

Photo: Daniel Finnan

Western media gives much attention to people infected with the deadly Ebola virus in west Africa being transported back to Europe and the US, yet the after-effects on the communities and organisations that those people served in west Africa has significant lasting consequences. One such example concerns a Spanish missionary and his work in Sierra Leone’s Port Loko district.

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Radio Report

Brother Manuel García Viejo worked at the St John of God hospital in Lunsar before he contracted Ebola and was brought back to Spain, where he died.

García’s colleagues at the hospital suspected something was wrong when he stopped coming to pray with them. He started to feel feverish, and isolated himself.

The Spaniard’s prudence in isolating himself, before he was evacuated to Madrid, probably saved many lives. On the other hand, it did not bode well for the hospital. The management was forced to close the hospital over worries that it would become a centre of Ebola transmission.

“Temporarily we ceased operations because we want to ensure the safety of our staff and patients,” says Brother Michael Koroma, the hospital manager.

The hospital closure had a big impact on surrounding communities. About 100 people a day came here before Ebola struck. The hospital has been closed and its 146 beds empty since García’s death.

This is set to change with plans to reopen the hospital with help from International Medical Corps who will provide staff support for the creation of an Ebola holding centre.

IMC is building a 100 bed Ebola treatment centre in Lunsar, a few kilometres away from the hospital, which they aim to open by the end of November. Brother Michael contacted them with his plans to add an Ebola holding centre, something he sees as pivotal to resurrecting the hospital.

The practicalities of having an Ebola holding centre on the same site as the hospital presents many challenges.

“It’s a good space,” says IMC programme coordinator Taralyn Lyon, in reference to the hospital outhouse that Brother Michael has designated for the new holding centre. “Although it’s a little dangerous,” she adds.

Lyon is on a visit of the hospital alongside IMC’s Hussien Ibrahim, emergency response team leader. Ibrahim is impressed by the hospital’s cleanliness but also has concerns about the feasibility of putting in a holding centre.

A group of the hospital’s doctors accompany Brother Michael and the IMC team on a tour of the facilities. The doctors are also keen to see the hospital reopen its doors and are highly attentive to the advice given by Lyon and Ibrahim.

A vast number of operational concerns need to be addressed: the traffic flow into the hospital, waiting areas, staff entrances, the timeliness of Ebola tests, isolation of suspected cases, the water supply, security, sensitization of the local community, storage for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the water flow. The list goes on.

The IMC staff wants Brother Michael to recognise these issues and consent to its support. They do not want to scupper his plans, though challenges faced in re-versioning an empty building in the same location is just as complicated as opening a busy hospital.

Down the road on the other side of Lunsar town, IMC continues construction on the creation of a much needed Ebola treatment centre.

Port Loko district has become a hotspot with 625 confirmed Ebola cases, according to statistics published by Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Centre on 10 November. It is second only to Bombali district and the Western Area Urban district in the number of confirmed cases.

Nadeem Ilyaf, IMC’s site engineer, surveys the construction with his local team of builders. They have downed tools for the moment, the rain temporarily stopping construction.

Ilyaf says they had hoped to open the treatment centre by 20 November, but with occasional bouts of rain it may be the end of November before it admits Ebola patients. The centre has been funded by a number of agencies, including Irish Aid, USAID and Qatar Charity.

The new IMC treatment centre and plans for the St John of God hospital holding centre offers some hope for the communities of Ebola-hit Port Loko district.

Ebola victim Brother García is unlikely to have ever wanted to have such an effect on the people he served. Perhaps improvements to the hospital will become part of his legacy.

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