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I’m a humanitarian officer for Save the Children working on the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone - AMA!

Oct 15th 2014 by SavetheChildren • 9 Questions • 595 Points

Hi I'm Dan Stewart, a humanitarian officer working in Sierra Leone on Save the Children's Ebola emergency response. I can answer any questions on what it's really like on the ground in an Ebola-affected region. Ask me anything!

Here is a link to my Twitter page: http://twitter.com/real_good_dan

UPDATE - Thanks for all your questions so far. I'm away for next few hours, but I'll be back again today at 4pm (EST), 9pm (BST) to answer your questions.

Q:

While you are looking after the children who unfortunately have or may have the disease, what methods do you use to keep their spirits up and make them less scared?

A:

That's a really good question. We're in the process of helping set up a treatment centre near Freetown - when that opens it will be the start of Save the Children treating people here. The treatment centre is an incredibly hazardous environment. One slip up or mistake can cost lives so we have to work within very strict and careful parameters. But of course the suits and the protocols and everything that goes with them, not to mention the disease itself, will be very frightening for children, so we need to find ways to comfort them. We are working at the moment to see how best to do that in the treatment centre - plans are developing every day and i have just asked our protection experts what the latest is. I'll post on here when i know more.


Q:

I hear about what needs to be done on the news all the time. In reality, what could be most effective or is most needed? I feel useless sat here and not doing anything.

A:

The needs are huge in many different ways, but ultimately and fundamentally, the transmission rate needs to come down. We need to do whatever we can to achieve that. So one key way is to ensure people with suspected Ebola have somewhere to go where they can get the best possible care. This is good for them as while there is no proven cure it does help to treat the symptoms well, giving people the best possible chance to fight off the virus themselves. But it also means that they come out of their communities, reducing the risk of them infecting people around them. Right now, across the region, we need more beds. Lots more. Save the Children is helping the UK government set up a new treatment centre near Freetown which will do just that: provide more specialist capacity for Ebola patients.

The other key thing is information that must ultimately lead to behaviour change. For example, it's crucial people have confidence in the Ebola treatment centres, but the sad fact is that many people will die there. So you can see why people may not immediately want to send their loved ones there, in the care of strangers in white suits, when they know many people still don't come back alive. So we have to work really hard to build trust with communities. We also have to reduce the behaviour that can lead to transmission. The traditional burial techniques which involve washing and coming into contact with the deceased have been well publicised. People need to stop dong what is considered a sign of respect. Regular hand washing and avoiding bodily contact with people you don't know well are a must. Reaching the number of people we need to and ultimately helping them change the way they act is a huge challenge but absolutely crucial. We're training community health workers who go out into communities to do that.

So then we come to what people can do. Not to get all fundraising-y but Save the Children is working incredibly hard to scale up all of the things I'm talking about on here - but we need help. Donating to our response really will help us save the lives of children here. If anyone is interested in helping us please do, and you can here: http://save.tc/HnmT. Thank you.


Q:

What is being done to help the now orphaned children that are being shunned by their family members in many cases? Is your organization able to help with these issues?

A:

This is a really key issue. You're right that some children have been shunned and stigmatised by their communities and families, and of course it's that the time when they are most vulnerable. We support an interim care centre in Kailahun, which is the epicentre of the outbreak in Sierra Leone. It's a place where children who have been made orphans, or whose parents have Ebola, can stay in a caring environment. But crucially, that mustn't be the end of their journey. We then work with their families and communities to dispell some of the fear and myths that surround Ebola, so that the children can return to a loving, protective environment. We have encountered families who were really afraid for these children to return, and worked with them sensitively until they welcome them back.


Q:

First all, thank you for the work you're doing. I have a crazy amount of respect for you and your colleagues! My question: The UN warns that we have 60 days to beat this and the disease is currently "beating" us. Is that your impression being right there in the midst of it?

A:

To some extent being in the middle of it you have to trust the impressions of organisations like the UN and the WHO - I can only see a very small piece of the jigsaw. But the district I write this from, which includes the capital Freetown, recently became the district with the most cases in Sierra Leone, overtaking the epicentre of the outbreak. The cases are going up every day here and if Ebola takes hold in this densely populated city of 1 million+ people then it could be catastrophic and incredibly difficult to stop. So in that respect yes this very much feels like a tipping point and so long as the cases keep going up - more than 100 in the last 2 days in Sierra Leone - it's beating us.


Q:

Why is there so much disinformation abound with ebola? I can understand why in the developing world such as Sierra Leone, but am baffled by it's prevalence in the US. Is there anything we can do to educate the masses?

A:

I think it's caused by fear - and no-one is immune to that wherever you are. The death rate is so high and the symptoms, like bleeding, are so horrible that people are inevitably and understandably frightened.

The WHO website is packed with reliable information on Ebola, their FAQs are a good place to start: http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/faq-ebola/en/ so I can recommend people take a look at that.

What I'd like people to understand and act on is that right now the key to defeating Ebola is here in West Africa.


Q:

Is there anything we can do to help your efforts?

A:

By supporting Save the Children here: http://save.tc/HnmT.

Donations will go towards things like nourishing food for children affected by Ebola, or the daily allowances required for a community health worker helping to stop the spread of the disease.

Thank you.


Q:

What should we expect to see in the next couple of months if a breakout occurs in the US?

A:

I can't speak from experience of the US health system, I find it very hard to picture what any outbreak would look like there. I think the only way to ensure that the outbreak doesn't spread further, or continue to provide a even a low level threat to people in countries like the US, is to focus resources here in West Africa now and get it under control here.


Q:

Thanks for being there for them.. I've read some posts that the mainstream medias cover up some stories about the outbreak in Europe.. In your opinion, is this kind of thing important, to keep the world at ease using news with hopes, rather than telling the truth no matter how cruel it is?

A:

I haven't seen those posts or heard that, I must admit. But my inclination would always be towards giving as truthful a picture of what's going on as possible. If people want hope, we have it. We are not in a 'no hope' situation. We still have a chance to turn this around but we can only do that with international support. I would think the best way to achieve that is by sharing the best information we have so people can develop a genuine understanding of what's happening.


Q:

From reports one can gather that there is a strongheld belief in some groups that Ebola is made-up. Have you encountered such persons? How much of the efforts.to contain and slow down Ebola are directed toward education?

A:

It is definitely true that many people believed that to begin with. So far I haven't personally met anyone who believes that now. I say this tentatively, but it seems like the message that Ebola is real is getting through in Sierra Leone. Too many people have died. Too many communities have been affected. And there has been a lot of community education work - we call it 'community sensitisation'. So to answer your question, yes education is key and a big part of what we're doing here. But then turning the acceptance that Ebola is real into real changes in people's behaviour is a huge challenge. People may believe in the disease, but will they follow the kinds of steps I have discussed in this AMA to tackle it? Or do they still believe a traditional healer can help? These are questions and issues we must continue to address.