Darren Hanniffy: The orphans of Ebola
Irish aid worker, Darren Hanniffy is helping to combat the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Yesterday, he was in Kenema and met some people who have been directly affected by Ebola, including a woman who lost her husband, her son and five members of her extended family, but who survived Ebola herself. This is his latest report.
“There are a number of checkpoints on the way into Kenema: entry must be approved into what is now a quarantine area. Daily life seems normal enough once you are inside the town, but you don't have to scratch too deeply to see that things are not as they first appear.
“Kenema is one of the most Ebola-affected areas of Sierra Leone. The population is genuinely worried, although this concern has been eased somewhat by awareness-raising campaigns conducted within the community and on the local radio station. Thankfully, people here understand more about Ebola now, and how to protect themselves.
“Our first visit was to Kenema hospital to meet the man leading the response to Ebola in the area. Not surprisingly, he was a busy man, surrounded by tired staff. We took a short tour of the hospital and saw the Ebola isolation unit. Although we are providing material support to health clinics and offering training, GOAL is not working directly with people infected by Ebola. Instead, we are providing support to affected survivors, particularly family members that are left behind.
“We’re doing this work through our partner organisation, ‘Ben Hirsch’. On a visit to their offices later in the day, we walked through a classroom full of children. I assumed that some form of lesson was taking place. We were directed to an office on one side where we met our partners. It is there that I learned about the children in the classroom.
“They are the orphans of Ebola: children whose parents have died, or who are in quarantine. Some of them have survived themselves and have been released from the isolation wards. Our partners gave us a briefing on the work that they have been doing, but I must admit that my mind remained outside with these poor children. I had so many questions.
“Having completed our briefing, we went back outside. The children were singing about "God making a road to heaven… and those that pray will go to heaven". I wasn’t feeling very uplifted.
“Outside the centre, we met with Kadiatu Nyarkoh and her daughter. Kadiatu's husband was an ambulance driver in Kenema hospital. He contracted Ebola and was one of the first people in the hospital to die, but not before inadvertently passing on the virus to members of his family, including his wife and children. Sadly, Kadiatu's son also died, as did five members of her extended family.
“Kadiatu and her daughter are now among a small number of people that have survived Ebola. She looked helpless in front of me. In her hand she held her hospital clearance letter. The laboratory test result was circled as ‘negative’. The letter was signed by Dr. Umar Khan. He was the top doctor who had been treating patients infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone, before he caught the virus himself and died a couple of weeks ago.
“Kadiatu told us that when she left the hospital, she asked the doctors if she could embrace her remaining children. She was told she could, and she said that this made her very happy. Although Kadiatu has lost her husband, her son and five other members of her extended family, hers is just one case. There are so many more just like her in Kenema and beyond.
“GOAL is trying to help people like Kadiatu by providing support packs of food, clothing, sanitary materials and some money. We want to help the children that have lost both parents: those who sit quietly in that classroom waiting for their names to be registered. There is so much that we would like to be able to do, but for now, we will do what we can.
“My final meeting in Kenema was one of the most important. For some time now, staff at GOAL headquarters in Dublin have been hearing about the work being carried out by our team in Kenema, and we wanted to show our support. I sat down with the team and we talked about the serious work that they are doing and the precautions we all needed to take.
“I thanked them for their work and wished them all the best. As soon as the meeting ended, they went about their work without ceremony.”