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Lecturer ‘in awe’ of Ebola nurses

By Patrick Nelson

Taking up the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. Image: P.K. Lee / MSF Taking up the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. Image: P.K. Lee / MSF

A Charles Darwin University lecturer says the courage displayed by home-grown nurses on the Ebola front line in Sierra Leone has left him in awe.

Alice Springs based nursing lecturer Dr Colin Watson said the risks they took and the hardships they endured were among the most astonishing he had seen in 30 years in the nursing profession.

“Working alongside the national nurses and doctors and other first responders was the highlight of my time in West Africa,” Dr Watson said.

“Their efforts were truly inspirational. Many of them couldn’t tell their families about their involvement for fear of stigmatisation in their communities, but still they turned up to work every day.”

Dr Watson spent five weeks of the summer in Sierra Leone taking up the fight against what is the most widespread Ebola epidemic in history.As of late March, the World Health Organisation had reported 24,872 cases and 10,311 deaths.

“I was based in Kailahun, a remote district in eastern Sierra Leone bordering Liberia and Guinea, not far from the epicentre of the outbreak,” he said.

“It was a multi-dimensional role that included supervising a medical team in the Ebola Management Centre, managing the clinic’s pharmacy, following surveillance activities across the district and improving community awareness of the management of infectious diseases.

“Typhoid and Lassa fever are also known in the district and require similar management practices to those for Ebola. In a community where health literacy is poor, it is very important to explain why patients are isolated and why personal protective equipment needs to be worn by health staff. Hopefully our explanations helped to ally community concerns.”   
It was Dr Watson’s sixth placement with the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), following previous missions in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Libya, Haiti and Gaza.

“I have an interest in the public health responses in epidemic contexts. In this case I was really impressed with what I saw of a multi-faceted approach to this outbreak.”

Dr Watson said that at no stage did he consider himself in danger or at risk.

“MSF’s commitment to staff safety and patient care is paramount. I received extensive training in the use of personal protective equipment and the protocols and procedures in the field were rigidly enforced.”

Upon returning to Australia, Dr Watson stayed in Sydney near a hospital with isolation facilities for the 21-day incubation period of the virus.

“The emphasis was to monitor my health over the incubation period. This involved checking my temperature twice a day and monitoring my general well-being.”