"When I was placed at an Ebola treatment centre in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), my friends and family first asked me why on earth I wanted to go there; and, second, what I would do to stay safe from contracting Ebola. The thought of working in a complex disease outbreak setting is confronting enough, and then you have the added challenges of DRC’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces.These are conflict zones with a crippled health infrastructure, already struggling to cope with everyday killers such as malaria, pneumonia and malnutrition, let alone Ebola.
A year since the outbreak began, political instability and ongoing mistrust mean it’s not yet under control. That’s despite a new Ebola vaccine – which is still in the clinical testing phase but appearing to be effective – and a handful of trial therapies also showing promising results. But there are many ways Ebola workers can stay safe:
Mind and body preparation
1. Intellectual: being up to date with information and research on the Ebola virus, the signs, symptoms, diagnostic and treatment methods;
2. Psychological: being emotionally prepared - ready to work long hours, in a remote setting, far from family and creature comforts. It’s being ready to face many challenges, including insecurity due to armed groups; and despite all best efforts, seeing many deaths from this tragic illness;
3. Physical: being in good shape. Working in a treatment centre is physically demanding: the protective equipment is cumbersome, and it can get very hot and difficult to breathe.
Vaccinating against Ebola
There is a vaccine available for Ebola, which is being used to curb transmission from patients to their families and contacts, and to health workers. I received this vaccine as soon as I arrived in the DRC, and although we cannot assume it offers 100% protection or can replace meticulous infection control procedures and protective equipment, it is still an important tool.