It seems like every day the Ebola situation in this country is becoming more and more severe. Every time I feel that I’ve finally caught up with all the facts and figures, my comfort is derailed by news of yet another travesty. Today that travesty was the death of Dr. Sheik Kahn.
Dr. Kahn, an internationally acclaimed haemorrhagic fever researcher, lost his life less than a week after being declared positive for the Ebola virus. Specializing in other forms of viral haemorrhagic fevers, taking charge of the Ebola treatment centre in the Kenema Government Hospital was a step out of his comfort zone and into the unknown. Recognizing how his expertise could have potentially been a saving grace for the hundreds suffering from the disease, the doctor moved into a position where his life was in more danger than ever before. Working 12 hour days in one of the virus’s deadliest epicentres, his was a move of absolute self-sacrifice that, in the end, robbed him of the very last thing he had to give: himself.
This news comes less than two weeks after the head nurse at Kenema Government Hospital’s Lassa fever unit and Ebola management centre, Mbalu Fonie, succumbed to the same disease, along with four other nurses working alongside her. The Ebola front is a warzone, and its soldiers are dropping like flies. But doctors and nurses should not be soldiers; their roles should be of healers, not those bearing the brunt of the highest danger. But these healers have indeed become soldiers, but not because the enemy has breached the gates. No, it seems rather that the gates were never built, and the enemy has leisurely strolled up to the stronghold.
The other day a friend of mine optimistically speculated that the Ebola outbreak was coming to an end. When I asked him why he thought this, he said it was because historically such outbreaks haven’t lasted more than a few months. What he failed to consider, however, is that the containment efforts of previous outbreaks have had advantages that those fighting Ebola on the ground in Sierra Leone do not have: namely military intervention and the limitation of movement. In previous instances, the epicentres of such outbreaks have been immediately quarantined within days of the first confirmed cases, and the military the real soldiers have closed off borders and prohibited movement between infected areas. By containing the virus, eradicating it was as simple as tracking down a few local contacts.
But today, Sierra Leone’s real soldiers sit in their barracks, constantly sensitizing themselves about the dangers of the virus while they patiently await an order from President Ernest Bai Koroma that may or may not ever come. Without an order from the Commander in Chief, soldiers in Daru Town and Kenema are confined to their quarters and will be penalized if they are caught trying to make their way into town. Even if soldiers wanted to do their part in combating the disease, the lack of instruction has effectively cut off their means of doing so.
Nobody is more aware of this inaction than the health professionals to which it poses the greatest threat. Last week I paid a visit to Rokupa Hospital in eastern Freetown, the first medical centre accessible to those entering the city from the provinces. Medical Superintendent Dr. Matilda King recalled to my partner and I an instance the week before in which an unknown traveller was admitted to the institution after refusing to specify his origin. Shortly after, the man died of what was later confirmed to be a case of the Ebola virus. She speculated that the man had fled treatment in the eastern province before making his way to Freetown unmolested. If significant military action had been taken to limit the mobility of travellers from that area, Dr. King suggested that the man would never have made it to the city, and therefore would have never put her and other medical personnel at risk of contracting the disease. Military intervention, she said, is of the utmost importance in preventing Ebola’s breach into Sierra Leone’s most populated city.
At what point will this fact that’s seemingly obvious to medical professionals like Dr. King be acknowledged by those crafting eradication policy? Sure, sensitization is a crucial step in halting Ebola’s spread, but with the number of Ebola deniers dwindling by the say, this step is beginning to lose relevance. Knowledge is power, but if that knowledge is not used to justify action, then what is the point of having that knowledge in the first place? How many more heroes must lose their lives before we decide enough is enough?
I am not the first to ponder these questions and I’m sure I won’t be the last. I can only hope that protective measures are put in place before it’s too late. Until then, I sit and wait with so many others pondering the simple question of military inaction:
Thursday July 31, 2014