December 9, 2014 / 12:10 AM / 5 years ago

British charity defends management of Ebola centre after criticism

FREETOWN (Reuters) - British charity Save The Children on Monday defended its management of an Ebola treatment centre outside Freetown saying it had informed both the British government and Sierra Leone that it lacked frontline experience in running such facilities.

Sierra Leone’s government last week said most of the beds in the treatment centre were empty because the British handed the facility over to a charity that was not experienced enough to run it.

Save The Children was contracted by the British government to manage the 80-bed Kerry Town Ebola centre, built by the British military as part of international efforts to contain the worst outbreak of Ebola on record.

The centre opened on Nov. 5, but only around one-third of its beds are occupied despite Ebola spreading fast across Sierra Leone.

The virus has now killed 6,331 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization. Sierra Leone has the highest number of cases.

Save The Children’s Global Humanitarian Director Michael Von Bertele, said the criticism stemmed from “a misunderstanding”.

“When we were asked to take on the centre, we made it absolutely clear that this was new business for us ... We have never run frontline health services at this scale,” Von Bertele told journalists.

Palo Conteh, head of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Response Centre, told a news conference last week in the capital Freetown that running the facility outside the West African nation’s capital was a challenge for the charity.

“Save The Children, they do not have the expertise,” Conteh told a news conference. “That is something we must all accept, hands up, and say the Brits got it wrong with Kerry Town, handing over that facility to Save The Children who have never run an Ebola facility.”

Bertele said the charity organisation had been obliged to recruit and train some 250 local staff and more from around the world.

“We set out a plan that involved us maybe taking just two or three patients in the first week, while we understood the complexity of working in a new environment with a new disease, and that is what we did,” he said.

Bertele said the organisation was expanding services, with 25 beds occupied, and was on track to fill the remaining beds by the end of the month.

“The British government may have asked lots of other people to do this but no one would say yes,” he said. “We are the only charity that said ‘yes we will do it’. The government of Sierra Leone knew that when they approached us.”

(Recasts headline and first two paragraphs to correct that Sierra Leone officials spoke last week.)

Reporting by Umaru Fofana; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Roche

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