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'Harrowing stories' on the Ebola frontline

The battle against the spread of the Ebola goes on in Sierra Leone with posters in the capital city Freetown providing information on how to reduce the chances of spreading the deadly virus. (Submitted photo)

While the Ebola crisis in West Africa has primarily disappeared from the headlines, the ravages of the deadly virus continue.

Mainstream media attention has moved on, yet the international effort to contain the outbreak continues and a Queen’s University professor is in Sierra Leone and Liberia working to improve the response to the disease.

Udo Schuklenk (Philosophy) traveled to the affected areas to produce a report on expanded access to experimental drugs for Ebola patients for Medecins Sans Frontieres. Dr. Schuklenk has done continuing research on the issue of access to experimental drugs for catastrophically-ill patients ever since he undertook his doctoral research in the 1990s.

It’s been an eye-opening experience he says. Hearing the stories from survivors first-hand and seeing the effects of the virus will certainly have a lasting impact.

“As part of the consultancy work I am undertaking I had to talk to a number of Ebola survivors. The harrowing stories of whole families being wiped out one after another is not something that I will forget for quite some time to come. Truly devastating experiences,” he says. “It will take a long time for those survivors’ wounds to heal, if they ever will.”

Those who enter the outbreak zone are walking into another world, one where nobody is allowed to touch another person. Dr. Schuklenk says the no-contact policy takes some getting used and affects daily interactions.

Also, to prevent further spread of the virus there are “endless disinfection rituals,” involving chlorine solutions of various strengths. Hand washing is so regimented and rigorous that it takes up a significant portion of the day. Even shoes are sprayed pretty much continuously, he says.

There are reminders that the crisis is far from over.

A day after Dr. Schuklenk sent his replies to the Gazette’s questions Sierra Leone’s vice president was put into quarantine after his bodyguard died of Ebola. On the same day in the capital city Freetown all public transportation was halted at 6 pm and parts of city were quarantined.

As he has traveled through the country he has also gained a better understanding of its people’s plight, even without the virus. Sierra Leone was devastated by a civil war and average life expectancy is around 40 years while basic necessities of life like reliable electricity or water supply do not exist in many parts of the country.

“One village we visited had neither electricity nor access to clean water,” he says. “People fetched their water from a nearby swamp. In that same small village 40 people died of Ebola virus disease. I met a few of those who survived it, all complained about their infection’s continuing negative effects on their quality of life, including severe joint pain, problems with their eye sight and other issues.”

Still Dr. Schuklenk says there are positives to be seen.

Despite all Sierra Leone has been through Dr. Schuklenk says he “can't help but feel optimistic about the country.”

Roadblocks where people are checked for signs of Ebola infection are everywhere yet infrastructure work continues. Schools have been closed for about 10 months due to the outbreak but the government is considering re-opening them by the end of March, he says.

And, amazingly, there are chance encounters.

Dr. Schuklenk met a Queen’s nursing alumnus, Rebecca Ngan (NSc’07), at an emergency medical centre near the village of Makambo where she was taking care of Ebola patients, donning her protective ‘space’ gear in temperatures over 30C.