When you listen to the experts, Ebola is both scarier and less scary than it initially appears.
It’s less scary because soap and chlorine can kill it, and the proper infrastructure and adequate information can protect against it.
It’s terrifying, because thousands without those simple advantages are dying, in terrible pain, of a disease that is highly infectious and has neither vaccine nor antidote.
“Numbers are doubling or tripling every few weeks”
“The biggest outbreak before this was around 500,” says Dr Louisa Baxter, fresh back from supporting our work in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
(Well, not absolutely fresh: when she came into the London office she hastened to reassure us that she was through her 21-day quarantine period.)
“Now it’s about 8,000 – and that’s probably a gross underestimate.
“Every case leads to another 1.5 or 2.5 cases. Which means the numbers are doubling or tripling every few weeks.”
But these are not just numbers – each is a person, isolated at the most vulnerable time of their lives. “People are dying alone,” says Baxter. “Can you imagine anything more distressing?”
Big disease, bigger problems
Baxter and other Save the Children staff on the ground are doing everything they can to care for the sick and protect those who are still healthy.
Ebola is big – but the problems it has caused are still bigger. “No children are in school,” says Gareth Owen OBE, Save the Children’s Emergencies Director. “Nobody is taking exams.”
Patients who have other illnesses are avoiding clinics, out of fear of Ebola. Staff are not turning up to work.
And illnesses such as measles, that shouldn’t harm children, are doing just that, as poor countries with weak infrastructure buckle under the pressure of an epidemic.
In the hot suit
Recently, Stephanie Roberts, a staff member in London, climbed into a PPE (personal protective equipment) suit – the full-body covering that health workers must wear if they are coming into proximity with Ebola sufferers.
She emerged hot, sweaty – and full of admiration for the health workers who don this gear for up to an hour and a half at a time.
“It’s a long process putting on the suits and you have to take your time, making sure that there are no gaps anywhere,” says Stephanie. “Your ‘buddy’ helps with this.”
The suit, she says, gets very hot, very quickly. (And this was in London, not a tropical climate like Liberia.) “The latex gloves must go on first and, even in an air-conditioned London office, sweaty hands make it harder to put on the rest of the suit!”
Your own little sauna
Once fully enclosed, she says, you’re in your own little sauna, with difficulty breathing, much less moving.
Although she only wore the suit for about half an hour she was desperate to get out.
Health workers have to make sure they are very well hydrated, to protect their own health.
Heat, in the context of a killer disease, doesn’t sound like much, but of course difficult work is still harder when it involves discomfort, too.
Our staff on the ground in Ebola-stricken countries are incredibly brave. “Humanitarian aid workers accept personal risk as part of the job,” says Owen, “but this goes beyond that.”
Safety, he adds, is our primary concern, but that’s not quite right: safety is our secondary concern; our first is saving lives.
Ebola may be deadly but it’s easy to kill
Ebola can live for two to three days outside the body, yet it is easily killed by chlorine and high temperatures. Avoiding touching dead bodies or sick people, and staying clear of blood and other bodily fluids, can mean the difference between life and death.
People need to understand all this: they need warning against touching, and advice on continual hand-washing, and they need access to free chlorine to keep everything around them germ-free. (Opportunistic selling means prices of these essentials have skyrocketed out of the range of the poor.)
The people who are disseminating this advice are doing so in difficult conditions that range from the discomfort of a hot suit to the peril of encountering a deadly illness.
They are immensely courageous. But while they may welcome your admiration, what they need is your help.