In Ebola-stricken Guinea, caregivers take no risks

In a small Ebola treatment centre comprising several brightly coloured buildings in Guinea’s southeast, the doctors are almost completely hidden by their white hazmat suits.  

Without a single inch of skin exposed, they’re leave nothing to chance against the deadly disease, which re-emerged in the poor West African state nation earlier this month. 

“As soon as I’m in the suit, the sweat starts to flow,” says a visibly flustered doctor at the centre in Guinea’s Nzerekore region.

The return of the viral disease has evoked the spectres of the devastating 2013-2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which left 11,300 dead in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Ebola causes severe fever and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding. It is transmitted through close contact with bodily fluids, and people who live with or care for patients are most at risk.

High mortality rates, and harrowing memories of the previous outbreak, has made some in Nzerekore reticent about seeking treatment. 

However the prognosis appears better this time around.

At least five people have died in the latest outbreak, according to the country’s health agency, although there is some confusion over the exact death toll.

Guinean health authorities have also reported 10 confirmed or probable Ebola cases, and are tracking 400 more contact cases.

The country also launched a vaccination campaign against Ebola this week — a treatment which was unavailable during the last epidemic.

– ‘Not a hospice’ –

Guinea’s government, medical NGOs and the World Health Organization mobilised quickly after news of the outbreak. 

Vaccinations began only a week after the outbreak was confirmed and medical teams were rapidly deployed to Nzerekore.

The treatment centre there consists of a small compound of several buildings painted yellow and red, surrounded by a metal grating. 

“People need to understand that an Ebola treatment centre is not a hospice,” said Dally Muamba, a doctor employed at the centre by the Alliance for International Medical Action.

He added that the centre is using a treatment developed in the Democratic Republic of Congo —  where Ebola is endemic — which involves injecting patients with antibodies extracted from survivors of the disease.

“Chances of survival are much higher today,” Muamba says. 

Alseny-Modet Camara, the head of the treatment centre, agrees. 

“The mortality rate was up to 70 percent before… we were able to reduce that mortality to less than 10 percent,” he said.

– ‘Face this demon again’ – 

A middle-aged man emerges from one of the small buildings with his eyes downcast, drips in both arms, and sits on a plastic chair. 

The man has just learned he has Ebola. 

An Ebola survivor from the first epidemic, nicknamed “Dr Papus”, broke the news to him, and tried to reassure him.  

“I tell them that I have faced this disease, that we must not give up,” says Papus, whose father and uncle both died of Ebola in 2014.

He says he did not believe in the epidemic until he fell ill, and subsequently recovered.

“Since I am already immune, I have to help others, I have to go back and face this demon again,” he says. 

But not everyone survives. On Thursday evening, a Red Cross pick-up truck arrived at the centre, its paintwork faded from repeat disinfections.

It had come to remove the body of a patient who had succumbed to Ebola, and whose burial will also be subject to strict medical precautions.

by Carol VALADE