Kono District: Newest Ebola hotspot in Sierra Leone

Published: 29 December 2014 11:28 CET

Kono district, in northeastern Sierra Leone has recently experienced a spike of Ebola cases, with close to 90 bodies being found over recent weeks. As part of its scale-up of activities, the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, with the support of IFRC and its Movement partners, had already begun construction of an Ebola treatment centre in Kono. Since the dramatic rise in cases, Red Cross teams have been deployed from neighbouring Kenema and Kailahun districts to conduct assessments, disinfect the hospital and isolate patients, conduct trainings in infection prevention and control, and assist in safe and dignified burials.

Below, an interview with Erik Lundblad from the Norwegian Red Cross Society, who is deputy team leader at the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kono.

What is the situation presently like in Kono?

The situation in Kono is very worrying. We’ve received an increasing number of patients from Kono in the Kenema Ebola treatment centre in the past few weeks, now numbering more than 60. We are receiving alerts of suspect patients from all 14 chiefdoms in the district.

What is the Red Cross doing in Kono and why?

We arrived in Kono just a couple of weeks ago and found a hospital in great need of assistance. Staff were facing an increased patient caseload. There is a severe lack of staff  because some had fled, had been in quarantine or were themselves confirmed Ebola patients, and some unfortunately, died.  Red Cross teams have cleaned out the hospital, ward by ward, to avoid any risk of contamination and to improve the general hygiene of the hospital. We have also started to train staff in infection prevention and control. We have constructed a triage and holding centre inside the hospital premises to separate suspected Ebola patients from non-Ebola patients, which allows the hospital to run as normal and care for their patients. Suspect Ebola patients are presently isolated at the hospital before being taken to the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kenema, some two hours away.

We have already started the construction of a treatment centre in Kono which will have a 20-bed capacity and will be opening in the next couple of weeks. The same Kenema construction team will be arriving in the next couple of days to oversee the site in Kono. The same rigorous health and safety standards will be applied here as in Kenema.

There are also two Red Cross safe and dignified burial teams based in Kono which are responding to alerts in the most remote locations. With the support of an additional team deployed from neighbouring Kailahun district, the teams buried over 11 bodies in their first week. The rough terrain is an undoubtable challenge. It sometimes takes up to three hours to reach their destination from Koidu, the capital of Kono district.

The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society will shortly commence contact tracing, social mobilization and psychosocial assistance in Kono district as part of their scale-up of activities.

How have you engaged local communities in the establishment of the Kono treatment centre?

We’re making sure we’re involving both the traditional leaders and the local government. We’ve met both with the paramount chief, the town chiefs, the local government and other prominent leaders. We invited the chief of Douma chiefdom, where the treatment centre is being built, together with other community representatives, to a meeting where we thoroughly explained what an Ebola treatment centre is, why we are here, and gave them an opportunity to raise any concerns or fears they may have regarding how it will be run, and if it is a dangerous endeavour to surrounding communities.

The chief had been previously ignored in other projects and felt very frustrated. By inviting the community along, we demonstrated that they are very much part of the treatment centre and, because of that engagement, they are supporting us. For example, they have recruited security guards from within their villages to support the treatment centre. The Sierra Leone Red Cross is very well thought of in the region. We are mindful to balance volunteers from the Sierra Leone Red Cross and members of the surrounding communities in the construction of the centre.

What is needed in Kono to bring down the number of Ebola cases?

One thing is getting the treatment centre up and running, but for the time being we can do triage and send patients to Kenema.  As far as case management goes, we are able to look after patients. What is urgently needed is the means to reach out to patients in the most rural areas. There are not yet enough people on the ground to do swabbing, contact tracing and community outreach. The entire system needs to be strengthened.

How does the reality on the ground compare to messages being shared through international media?

News in Norway or Europe indicates that Ebola has recently experienced a steep down curve and is no longer the problem it was, which in Kono is not the reality. It’s very much a serious situation and people are scared and worried. We have seen a steep increase in patient numbers.

Is there one moment that has impacted on you during your time in Sierra Leone?

There are many extremely strong stories. One that really made an impact was a nine year old boy who was discharged from the Red Cross treatment centre in Kenema. He lost his mother, two sisters and brothers; he was very traumatized. He has one older sister who is still living, but she couldn’t afford to take him in, so he was discharged, but without any sign of happiness. He was placed in interim care until a suitable solution can be found for him. It was really striking to see both the joy and happiness of seeing the Red Cross staff cheering when he came out of the high risk zone, discharged and Ebola free, but still without anyone to take care of him for the moment.

How would you evaluate the Red Cross response to the Ebola situation in Sierra Leone?

I am very happy the Red Cross is able to show it can respond quickly, that we are not just sitting around discussing how and when and if we’re going to take action. When we see a need, as you can see in Kono now, we get together a team and we go to assess the situation and we move. Now we will have the first cargo plane with equipment arriving. I’ve never experienced this ability to respond like this, so I’m extremely happy and proud we are able to do this.