2 Apr 2015

I'm trained and ready to help tackle Ebola in West Africa

Later this month PhD student Raquel Medialdea Carrera will head to Sierra Leone to assist with the international effort to contain the Ebola outbreak. Here she tells us about her decision to volunteer and the intense training she has had in readiness for the experience.

In August 2014 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the spread of Ebola in West Africa was an international public health emergency. West Africa has suffered the worst Ebola outbreak in history with widespread and intense transmission in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. A few cases have also occurred in Nigeria, Senegal, the U.S. and Spain. Since December 2013, when the first Ebola case of this outbreak was identified in Guinea, more than 25,000 people have been infected and more than 9,600 have died. The number of cases is already decreasing, partly due to the increased awareness of the Ebola transmission pathways and government action, but mainly as a result of the impressive international co-ordinated response.

This outbreak represents a unique and amazing example of how international collaboration can help control the spread of a serious epidemic; thousands of volunteers have come together from all over the world to deliver humanitarian support. In April 2015 I will be deployed to West Africa to volunteer at a Public Health England Ebola Treatment Centre. I will be diagnosing Ebola for five weeks in Makeni (which is one of the largest cities in Sierra Leone) and deployed with the NGO International Medical Corps. Sierra Leone has been the most affected country by this Ebola outbreak with more than 11,400 people infected and around 3,500 deaths.

Working in the labs at the Institute of Infection and Global Health [Photo: Joel Redman]

My need to help

I decided to go to Sierra Leone as I felt a strong need to help with this emergency situation. As a scientist currently working on emerging zoonotic infections, I understand the severity of this outbreak and I realised that this is an incredible opportunity to use my professional skills and experience to help in this crisis. I feel very privileged to be able to contribute to the incredible, existing international and local efforts that have been made to control the spread of Ebola and I consider myself immensely lucky for being able to help diagnose patients with Ebola first-hand.

Most of my friends have asked if I am scared about working in Sierra Leone. However, for me, the scary thing was telling my family that I will be diagnosing the Ebola virus in the field. I understand the fears of my family as Spanish media coverage of the outbreak has often been extremely exaggerated and lacking in scientific evidence, especially after the first case of Ebola transmission outside of Africa occurred in Madrid. However, my family and friends understand my motivations and support my desire to help.

The Diagnostic Unit in Makeni where I will be volunteering. The inactivation of the Ebola virus is performed inside the isolators.

Training for West Africa

My excitement about being deployed to Sierra Leone further increased after my training, which took place in a mock laboratory in Porton Down (Public Health England). Here they have built an exact replica of the diagnostic units in Sierra Leone, including the same machines, instruments, protective equipment and even heaters - all designed to imitate the conditions and temperatures in West Africa.

During a very intense week, we not only learnt how to diagnose Ebola, but also how to manage the risks of working in an Ebola Treatment Centre laboratory; we were taught how to use personal protective equipment appropriately, how to respond to extremely hazardous situations and how to keep safe in Sierra Leone.

The training gave me a unique opportunity to get to know some other volunteers. Our group was made up of 13 wonderful professionals with a wide range of ages and professional experience represented. For example, there were postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, professors from a wide range of highly prestigious UK universities, biomedical workers, hospital laboratory workers, biosafety experts and diagnostic workers from Public Health England. Although we were a very diverse group, I noticed we had a lot of things in common: a motivation for learning how to diagnose Ebola, enthusiasm for giving the best of ourselves and a desire to help deal with this outbreak using all our capacities.

With fellow volunteers at the pre-deployment training week

What to expect

My day to day work in Sierra Leone will consist of receiving blood, swabs and urine samples from patients suspected to have Ebola. Extreme safety measures need to be taken as some of these samples will be highly infectious. The samples are introduced into an isolator and tested for malaria before being inactivated with ethanol and extraction buffer.  Inactivation of the samples is then ensured by using heat, followed by the extraction of the viral genomic RNA. Finally, the samples are analysed by Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) which amplifies the nucleic acids from Ebola. And…voila! With a quick analysis of the PCR results it is possible to confirm if the patient has Ebola in just 3.5 to 5 hours!

Overall, the training was outstanding, my future laboratory mates seem like brilliant professionals and I feel much more prepared to help diagnose Ebola in West Africa. Moreover, and most importantly, I am really excited as I know that very shortly I will have one of the most rewarding and life changing experiences of my life.

Street Sign in West Africa. (AFP/GETTY IMAGE)

Interesting facts

  • Detergent (such as Fairy) is able to kill the Ebola virus.
  • The first Ebola-Like Virus found in Europe was identified for the first time 4 years ago in Spain and is called Lloviu Cuevavirus. To be more precise, it was initially found in some bats that were living in a cave where I have been several times before as it is located just 11 km away from my home town of Gij√≥n! However, do not panic as this virus seems to be non-pathogenic for humans (yet).

Raquel Medialdea Carrera is an MRes-PhD Student in the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at the University of Liverpool.

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