Game-changing developments in the fight against Ebola

  • Emergency
  • Sierra Leone

A drop in new cases, the start of the rainy season, and prospects for a possible vaccine have changed the way the campaign against the Ebola virus is being fought. Recently back from Sierra Leone, Jérôme Besnier, the director of our Ebola programme, tells us more about this changing context.

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Ebola crisis. Teams testing an inflatable tent. Sierra Leone.
Ebola crisis. Teams testing an inflatable tent. Sierra Leone.
Ebaola crisis. To prepare for work in rainy conditions, Handicap International teams test an inflatable tent prototype. The tent can be inflated in 3 minutes, and is used when teams nead to put on or remove their protective clothing. Sierra Leone.

There’s less talk of Ebola in the media. Does that mean the epidemic is over?
 
Unfortunately, no, it’s not over yet, although there was a sharp drop in the number of people infected earlier this year. Following this fall, the number of new contaminations per week has remained low. However, a single case can be enough to spark a new epidemic. That’s why our teams are getting on with their work as usual. Whether there are five confirmed cases a week or one hundred should not make a difference to our level of vigilance or our efforts to eradicate the virus. Everyone wants to be able to put this awful epidemic behind them, starting with people living in countries which have been hit the hardest (Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia), but it’s still too early to let our guard down.
 
The rainy season has started in Sierra Leone. Is that going to make your work more difficult?
 
Yes, for several reasons. Firstly because whenever anyone displays symptoms of the virus our teams have to intervene, and a lot people with other illnesses have the same symptoms during the rainy season. It doesn’t matter if someone’s got malaria or a waterborne disease, we still need to transport them to screening centres and apply the same procedures to avoid contaminating other people, then wait for the test results to give us a clearer picture. So we’ve had to intervene more often since the start of the rainy season, even though the number of confirmed cases of the Ebola virus remains low.

But the rain creates another problem because it makes it more difficult to follow the security protocol for putting on and taking off the protective suit. When our colleagues take off their suit, they need to avoid coming into contact with potentially infected bodily fluids. The rain makes these fluids run down the suit, so taking it off is much more risky. We had to make a few changes and developed an inflatable tent where our teams could put on and take off their suits in greater safety.
   
A new vaccine has produced promising results in Guinea. Do you think it will bring a rapid end to the virus?
 
It’s still too early to tell. We hope so, of course, and if the vaccine proves to be effective, it would probably have a much greater impact on stopping the virus. But for the moment, the only thing we can do is to prevent sick people from coming into contact with those around them. We’re doing this through our efforts to transport the sick and we’ll continue to do so until the virus has been eradicated.

Published 19/08/15

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