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Health workers at a clinic in DR Congo Health workers at a clinic in DR Congo  (AFP or licensors)

A diplomat on the Ebola frontline

As the DR Congo faces the second largest recorded Ebola outbreak, an Irish Diplomat speaks about working on the frontlines of an epidemic in Sierra Leone.

By Lydia O’Kane

This week the head of the U.N. health agency said that the risk that the Ebola virus will spread in Congo remains "very high." Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was speaking at the start of the World Health Organization's annual assembly.

He said the outbreak was "one of the most complex health emergencies they had ever faced.”

The current Ebola crisis has been confirmed to have claimed well over 1,000 lives in Eastern Congo, an area wracked by violence by armed groups.

Rewind back to 2014 and it was the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia that were in the grip of a devastating Ebola outbreak that was the worst in history, killing around 11,312 people.

At the time, the epidemic dominated headlines around the world with stories about symptoms, vaccines and the battle to contain the disease.

One of the people best placed to understand the complexities and fear surrounding the current outbreak in DR Congo is the EU Ambassador to South Sudan, Dr Sinead Walsh.

She was Irish Ambassador to Sierra Leone when the disease began to take hold in the country.

“Unlike what’s happening at the moment in Congo”, she says, “they’re aren’t really stability, security issues in Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea, but in Congo at the moment, one of the reasons why the current outbreak, which is the second largest outbreak ever now after the one in West Africa; one of the reasons why that is still going on is actually precisely insecurity that there was a pre-existing conflict in North Kivu, in that part of Congo and that is actually hampering people’s access to come in and work with communities. That is a huge problem, it’s not going away and we need to focus on it very strongly.”

At an event hosted by Irish Embassy to the Holy See, the Ambassador was in Rome on Tuesday to talk about her efforts to raise the alarm and rapidly scale up the response in Sierra Leone during the 2014 epidemic.

What she experienced during the crisis is contained in a book co-written by British Doctor Oliver Johnston entitled, “Getting to Zero: A doctor and a diplomat on the Ebola frontline.”

Listen to the interview with Sinead Walsh

Failure and heroism

Documented in the book, is a sincere account of the courage and heroism of those who put their lives on the line to help contain the disease. But, it also details serious shortcomings in the humanitarian response and highlights a lack of leadership at both the local and international level.

Dr Walsh says the reason for writing the book was that they were afraid that, “history was being re-written and that it would just be portrayed as a success story, because there were zero ebola cases in the end.”

She goes on to explain that she and her co-author, “had lived through actually, a long period of the world being asleep and really not paying attention and coming in and assisting Sierra Leone.” She adds, that at a local level too, there was a lack of recognition that this epidemic was a crisis.

The Ambassador also emphasizes how important it was, to “showcase some of the heroes, some of whom are not alive… to tell their own stories because Sierra Leonean health workers for the most part, they did sacrifice their own lives to try to save the lives of their countrymen and their countrywomen.”

The fear factor

She says that amid the outbreak “fear was everywhere”, as well as panic and hysteria.

This, Dr. Walsh points out, was experienced at all levels including at the community level. “People would be afraid to go to a treatment centre because they would think that if I go and I don’t have it, I’ll catch it there”.

The EU Ambassador adds, that there was fear “permeating the response from even the international level all the way to the local level.”

She describes the crisis period as “a really surreal time”. “A lot of internationals and even Sierra Leoneans who had enough money they left.” she says.

Have lessons been learned?

Asked if she thought lessens had been learned from the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis, she says, “yes and no”. She notes that in Sierra Leone now, there is a greater awareness on doing surveillance at a local level to pick up on these diseases before they become “huge problems”.

She stresses, however, that a big issue is, “we haven’t yet grasped as an international community that we really need to take a generational approach to strengthen the health system in these kinds of countries.”

Sinead Walsh is donating her proceeds from the book to St Joseph’s School in Makeni, Sierra Leone, which educates and supports children with hearing impairments and other disabilities including Ebola survivors.

22 May 2019, 12:30