News Africa

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Clinic where 30 Ebola victims turned away daily

A pregnant woman suspected of contracting Ebola is lifted by stretcher into an ambulance in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Reuters
A pregnant woman suspected of contracting Ebola is lifted by stretcher into an ambulance in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Reuters

Colin Freeman

Like every other volunteer who serves with Médecins Sans Frontières, Stefan Liljegren joined up to help the sick and destitute.

His latest mission, in Ebola-hit Liberia, offers rather less job satisfaction. As field co-ordinator of MSF's new 160-bed Ebola treatment centre in the capital, Monrovia, one of his tasks is to decide which of the sick people who arrive outside the clinic's gates should get treatment. Such is the scale of the outbreak that for every 20-30 new patients the clinic admits each day, the same number are often turned away - despite the likelihood that they will go home and infect their relatives.

"This is by far the most difficult challenge that I have ever faced," the 44-year-old Swede said during a brief break from his work in the sweltering humidity of Liberia's monsoon season. "Every day I have been faced with impossible choices, and decisions that are inhuman to make. Having to tell someone that they can't come in when they are screaming and begging to do so is an indescribable feeling, especially when you know they may go back t o families who might well then get sick themselves."

Outside the clinic an hour earlier, a grisly scene demonstrated Mr Liljegren's point. Resting face down in the mud was the body of Dauda Konneh, 42. He had been lying there dead since daybreak.

"He was vomiting a lot and had symptoms like Ebola, so we put him in a pick-up truck and took him here for treatment," said one young man outside. "When we got here last night, he was still alive, but the clinic would not accept him. He died at dawn today."

When I mention this to Mr Liljegren, he nods. Having dead or dying patients outside the clinic overnight is "a regular occurrence," he says. The reason being that once night falls, the hospital does not admit anyone: handling Ebola patients requires extreme care at the best of times, and it would be dangerous to do so in the dark. The task of removing Mr Konneh's body falls to Stephen Rowden, a British MSF volunteer from Danbury, Essex, who leads a team in charge of the safe removal of corpses, which are sprayed with chlorine-based disinfectant first. "When I started it was maybe a body every two days, now it is daily and sometimes up to five a day," said Mr Rowden, 55. "I have never seen this amount of bodies before. It sounds callous, but you just have to switch off emotionally."

No amount of "switching off", though, spares the MSF staff from the wider scale of the fatalities around them. The clinic, one of three now operating in Monrovia, has seen 350 deaths in the last month alone. Since all infected bodies have to be burned, the casualties have exceeded the ability of Monrovia's local crematorium to cope. MSF has had to import an incinerator from Europe - normally used for livestock - to assist. For an aid agency that prides itself on triumphing in even the most difficult operating circumstances, it is a depressing reminder of how far there is to go.

The challenges facing the MSF clinic are in turn a snapshot of the wider outbreak now engulfing West Africa. The World Health Organisation study warned that the number of Ebola cases - currently topping 5,000 - could reach hundreds of thousands by January unless the aid operation was drastically increased. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Liberia, where 40pc of the all the deaths have taken place. In coming weeks, a 3,000-strong US military mission will arrive in Monrovia to build 17 more Ebola treatment clinics. But MSF, which worked in Liberia throughout the civil war, says the situation is already spiraling out of control. Inside the MSF clinic in Monrovia, those patients fortunate enough to get through the gates are admitted to rows of large white treatment tents. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Irish Independent

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