(Transcript from World News Radio)
The worst outbreak of the ebola virus in seven years is still taking its toll in the West African nations of Guinea and Liberia.
Thought to be spread by bats, the virus kills nine out of ten people who contract it.
In this latest outbreak 142 people have died, the majority in Guinea.
Australian epidemiologist, Dr Kamalini Lokuge, has just returned from Guinea where she’s been working with the families of those infected as a volunteer for MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res.
Brian Thomson has the details.
It’s a frightening sight to observe, especially for the patients: doctors dressed in suits similar to those worn by experts who handle hazardous materials.
With a near 90 per cent fatality rate, the doctors and nurses at a specially established ebola isolation centre in Guinea’s capital are forced to take extraordinary precautions to prevent themselves from becoming infected.
It’s a scene that Australian epidemiologist Kamalini Lokuge is becoming all too familiar with.
Now back home in Canberra, her visit to Guinea was the fourth time she has been to work in an ebola-affected region.
“Because you see it spreading within families and many family members dying, You see it spreading within health facilities and health workers infected and dying. I think all of that combines to make it a disease that is feared.”
It’s Kamalini’s job to map the spread of the disease, to track down affected families and win their trust.
“[In] One family, there was a patient who died, was tested and came positive but had presented very late. We didn’t understand how he got infected and we also very much concerned that he may have had lot of contacts at home while he was sick so went to his house a couple of times… When we first arrived they were very angry because there had been these people from outside visiting, the community had been asking questions, they were feeling stigmatised but we spent time explaining what care was given in the treatment centre, explaining how we control the disease, explaining our role. After that discussion, the head of that family brought two people from the family who had been sick but not willing to come.”
Those who succumb die an horrific death, bleeding internally and externally.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the disease is the fact that the families of those infected cannot hold their loved ones in their dying days.
“If family members are very keen we give them protective equipment but because of the barriers, because of the precautions, it can often be even more alienating. Particularly for example parents of children, it’s very difficult.”
Thanks in part to the work done by people like Kamalini, only around 2,000 people have contracted ebola since the disease was first identified in the mid-1970s.
And thanks to the precautions taken by MSF, none of their health workers has ever been contracted the disease.
But that doesn’t make it any easier for the families of those who go to help.
“My family and my mum are used to it now. She never says don’t go. I think everyone finds it hard. I have eight nieces and nephews and they’re all under eight yers old. They are all incredibly proud of what I do so that feels good. We’re very lucky in Australia. Every time I come back from an outbreak I think we have everything here and part of acknowledging how lucky we are – for me at least – is to help those who don’t have as much.”