New Ebola treatment centre opens in Sierra Leone

Published: 23 September 2014 11:26 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

When it comes to being on the front lines of fighting Ebola, no one can come closer than those manning the treatment centres in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Every patient who crosses the threshold of these centres has tested positive and is carrying the deadly and contagious virus, or they are suspected of it.

In Kenema, Sierra Leone, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) recently opened the doors to its first Ebola treatment centre. Within hours, health care staff, including head nurse Lucia Benavent, were receiving their first patients, four men and an 11-year-old girl, all from the capital Freetown, who had to endure a five hour drive to the eastern city.

“We were looking forward to getting these patients in,” says Benavent, who was deployed from the Spanish Red Cross. “At the same time it was difficult and very intense for me because I’ve been here since the beginning of this operation in Kenema and we’ve been working really hard to set up this place.”

At full capacity, the centre will treat 60 patients, but it will start slow and scale up over time. There are currently 21 patients being cared for by the team of 19 international staff, working alongside approximately 80 local workers. “Our team is ready, but for their safety, and the safety of patients, we want to ensure they are not overwhelmed,” says Tiina Saarikoski, IFRC treatment centre manager. “Making a mistake here can prove deadly and is obviously something we want to avoid.”

It has taken three weeks to build the centre, under the watchful eye of a local architect. It is a virtual seascape of large white tents, circled by orange mesh fences, to keep the infected well separated from staff. Anyone working hands-on with patients must first put on personal protective equipment before entering the high-risk zone. It is this combination of coveralls, heavy duty gloves and boots, goggles and aprons which will keep them safe.

They must dress and undress in a well-defined sequence, starting and ending with a pair of surgical gloves. The process is so regimented to protect staff from exposure to the virus. Discipline is a word used often here.

Benavent, and the Spanish Red Cross, have been here from the beginning. It takes a lot to run such a facility, a 24/7 operation. Tangible items like beds, blankets and chlorine disinfectant are needed, as well as people to make sure the facility is used effectively

“We are using personal protective equipment and we are going to use a lot of them, but fortunately we’ll be well supplied. These patients also need food, water, hygiene items, all you can imagine to survive,” says Benavent. “We also need a lot of people here and they need to be very well trained. Water and sanitation staff, local nurses, international nurses are all vital.”

The IFRC has launched an emergency appeal to support the people of Sierra Leone coping with this outbreak. Activities are focused on raising awareness about Ebola in communities, dead body management, monitoring those who may have come into contact with an infected person, and psychosocial support.