FREETOWN (Reuters) - In a stifling room in a sports stadium in Freetown, a dozen young people watch intently as three British soldiers show them how to put on several layers of protective clothing needed to enter an Ebola treatment center “red zone”.
They are training to be hygienists to help treat victims of the hemorrhagic fever that has gripped Sierra Leone, as well as neighboring Liberia and Guinea. The outbreak has killed some 5,000 people and threatens to infect tens of thousands more in the coming weeks.
It is a lesson that could save their lives. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids of infected people, who suffer from diarrhea, vomiting and bleeding in the final stages of the deadly disease, making treating them a dangerous job.
Some 250 healthcare workers have already died in the three worst-hit countries.
“Ebola is a deadly disease. It’s killing many amounts of people in our country and by the grace of God I want to stop the Ebola virus,” said Elizabeth Thomas, 22, a public health student.
Despite pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign governments, donors and U.N. agencies, the fight against the worst Ebola outbreak on record is being hampered by the chronic lack of trained physicians on the ground.
With its healthcare system ruined by a brutal 1991-2002 civil war, Sierra Leone had only around 120 doctors for its 6 million people before Ebola struck.
The World Health Organization estimates that 1,000 foreign medical workers and 20,000 locals are needed to man the 50 Ebola treatment units due to be rolled out across the region. Only a fraction of these have so far come forward, amid fear of the disease.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, visiting the three West African countries to see how the world can better respond to the epidemic, paid tribute to the bravery of the local volunteers.
“You’re warriors in this fight,” Power told them. “You’re the reason we’re going to beat this thing.”
At the WHO center, supported by Britain, some 750 people have been trained to work in treatment units. By the end of this month, the training center is expected to be graduating 240 educated workers a week, British officials say.
Much of the training focuses on putting on and taking off the protective suit, which officials say can only be worn for 45 minutes in the tropical heat before a break is needed. Students are made to run around the stadium in the suit to experience how hot they could get. Removing the suits takes some 20 minutes and involves dozens of steps to ensure no-one is infected.
Anxious students ask questions such as: What if I need to scratch my eye? Are we able to talk to patients when we are dressed in the protective equipment?
“Is there a medicine that can cure Ebola?” asked 24-year-old Jacob Vandy. He nodded when an instructor replied that a vaccine was being worked on but would take time.
Before it was detected in March in neighboring Guinea, Ebola had never before struck this part of Africa. Many in Sierra Leone reacted with disbelief. Some said it was a government plot to reduce the population in areas popular with the opposition.
Vandy said he had initially believed the rumors but once he saw the toll mounting, he decided to join the Ebola fight.
“We need to come together and find a way out,” Vandy told Power. “If we let our brothers and sisters continue dying, who knows, it might be us.”
Britain, the former colonial power in Sierra Leone, has been leading global efforts there. British High Commissioner Peter West said data collected had shown that nearly 80 percent of infections in the Western Area, which covers Freetown, were from touching dead bodies, prompting a focus on swift burials.
In an auditorium at the British Council normally used for cultural and educational events, Sierra Leonean troops are hunched over laptop computers in a corner directing burial teams to collect the bodies of Ebola victims in Freetown.
The Western Area was split into four zones. A white board tracks the grim weekly incident report for all four zones: 353 corpses collected and buried.
A four-page operations manual guides the troops at the Burial Command Centre. Teams are allowed to collect up to three bodies before heading to the cemetery and there is constant contact during the day with the command center.
The Western Ebola Emergency Response Centre, which also deals with reports of people sick with the disease, has only been operating about a week. Power said she was encouraged that in that time safe burials had tripled.
One young soldier, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, directed three burial teams around one of the zones on Monday to collect nine bodies.
A map on a white board behind him showed blue pins where eight bodies had already been collected. One remained red.
“They haven’t collected that body yet because the family wanted to buy a coffin first,” he said.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff