Having spent a considerable amount of time in Sri Lanka, her ancestral homeland, Kamalini Lokuge appreciates, perhaps more than most, how lucky she is to be Australian.
It is that appreciation of her good fortune that drives her to take risks that many others would baulk at.
Kamalini is an epidemiologist, and has just returned from working on the latest Ebola outbreak in Guinea.
A volunteer for Medecins Sans Frontieres, it was her fourth visit to an Ebola infected area.
“We’re very lucky in Australia, says Kamalini. “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.”
Although prompt treatment can help, Ebola kills nearly 9 in 10 people who contract the virus. The current outbreak in Guinea is the worst in 7 years. At the time of writing it has killed 142 people.
The doctors and nurses who treat those infected in the specially established isolation units in Guinea wear “Hazmat”- type suits, but not Kamalini. It is her job to map the spread of the disease, to track down families who might have come into contact with an infected person, to win their trust. Turning up looking like an astronaut would do her no favours.
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“If you are going there to retrieve a sick person you need to be prepared, take appropriate protective equipment but Ebola is not a disease like the flu, it is not transmitted by air and if you maintain safe distance from a patient then you are safe to speak with them.”
The initial symptoms can resemble malaria and in the early days of an outbreak it is often the carers who succumb, passing on the disease to nurses and doctors. Often there are very few medical professionals still around by the time people like Kamalini arrive.
“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”, she says.
It’s a fear which leads to stigma.
“We see stigma with any infectious disease, and that’s why often when you visit families they are angry because response teams have come to that household, the neighbours have seen what’s going on.”
Listen: SBS Radio – Australian doctor fighting ebola epidemic
Kamalini says even the few who survive are viewed with suspicion.
“We’ve had several people discharged who recovered, they then face a lot of stigma. So part of addressing that is to go with recovered patients to their home, to shake their hand and give them a hug so people know they are not infected anymore.”
Kamalini says perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the disease is the fact that families cannot hug their loved ones in their dying hours.
“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 for parents of children, very difficult.
“I think losing someone you love in such a setting having restrictions on how you can say goodbye, everyone can understand how hard that would be, we do everything we can to try and make it easier to give dignity to the families and patients but I wouldn’t say in any way it’s easy, no.”