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King's team working at frontline of Ebola outbreak

A King’s College London doctor seconded on an overseas project has found himself working at the West African frontline of the Ebola virus crisis.

Dr Oliver Johnson, 28, leads a team from King's Health Partners which was working on supporting long-term development of the health system in Sierra Leone – but which is now responding to the Ebola outbreak at Connaught Hospital in the capital Freetown.

With the outbreak of the potentially fatal disease (which has no known cure) confirmed in Sierra Leone, The King’s team had to make a tough decision. Some NGOs and organisations were ceasing work and even pulling non-essential foreign staff out of the country.
Oliver said there was a duty of care for the team – but also a duty of care for patients.

 Moral dilemma

‘It’s a moral dilemma in the truest sense. All our staff are volunteers and this isn’t what they originally signed up for – so we gave them the option to withdraw from clinical activities if they wanted to.

‘But after team discussions and with senior colleagues back at King’s in London we decided that as an organisation we had a duty to respond and that we did have the capacity to do so safely and effectively,’ he said.

Within hours of the first National Ebola Taskforce meeting, the King’s team had been invited to join the response, advising Connaught Hospital on how to develop a preparedness plan, identify cases, set up isolation units, protect staff and dispose of medical waste. 

These guidelines were held up as a model for other hospitals, and the King’s team have continued to act as technical advisors to the Health Ministry, along with groups such as Medicines Sans Frontieres, Emergency Hospital and the World Health Organization.

They found themselves amongst the first responders, alongside Connaught colleagues such as Sister Cecilia (Sister-in-Charge of A&E) and Dr Modupe Cole (Consultant Physician) who did not hesitate to step forward and manage the response.

Staff set up isolation units and now work to provide treatment and take blood specimens from patients suspected to have the virus. The patients then face an agonising 3 to 4 day wait for the lab test results. If disease free, they are treated at Connaught, if positive, they are referred to 2 special treatment centres. A third of patients with Ebola at Connaught have died.

'Challenging circumstances'

‘Ebola is new to Sierra Leone. Health facilities were overwhelmed even before this outbreak -there’s a major shortage of doctors, nurses and infrastructure – we’re all working in challenging circumstances,’ says Oliver.

‘Tracing contacted people is very difficult, with poor roads and overcrowded housing making it harder.
‘We’re all aware of the risks and about how much is at stake. After some initial nerves though, everyone has really started to come together as experience and confidence grows.

‘There’s no doubt that it’s going to be an intense and exhausting next few months as the outbreak continues.

‘There isn’t panic yet though – the people of Sierra Leone have been through many challenges over the years, from war, cholera and every day struggles of life -so they are remaining resolute in the face of this.’

The King’s Health Partners team working on the Sierra Leone health Partnership team consists of clinicians, with two consultant-level physicians, two junior doctors trained in tropical medicine, two nurses, a pharmacist and a hospital manager. They are all volunteers from King’s College London Guy’s and St Thomas’, King’s College Hospital and South London and Maudsley hospitals.

You can read more of Oliver’s blog here and donate to the Sierra Leone project here.