Fighting Ebola In Sierra Leone — Dr Charles Heatley — 14th September 2015.

Dr Charles HeatleyOur Speaker this week was a local GP who shared his exper­i­ence of the Ebola crisis which was dom­in­at­ing the head­lines only a year ago.

Dr Charles Heatley has prac­ticed Medicine for 22 years.  He received his ini­tial med­ical train­ing at Glasgow University, includ­ing a year of study­ing trop­ical medi­cine.  It was this back­ground know­ledge and interest gained by later elect­ives to East Africa that promp­ted him to volun­teer when the Government appealed for med­ical staff to go to Sierra Leone in November 2014.

Ebola is a virus dis­covered in 1976 and named after a trib­u­tary of the River Congo.  The three West  African coun­tries mostly effected by the 2014 out­break were Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  By November of that year around 27,000 cases and 11,000 deaths had been estim­ated by the World Health Organisation. Thanks largely to the efforts made by people in our story, the out­break has been brought under con­trol.

This viral dis­ease attacks vic­tims’ internal organs. Symptoms, which are ini­tially sim­ilar to Malaria, start up to three weeks from con­tact.  These include muscle pain and head­aches which typ­ic­ally develop into a rash, then vomit­ing and diarrhoea.  There may be internal and external bleed­ing.  The virus spreads quickly through con­tact with the blood or bodily liquids of an effected person or animal –entry via the eye mem­branes is common. There is no cure but rapid rehyd­ra­tion can help many vic­tims to sur­vive.

Charles Heatley explained that West Africa is prone to such out­breaks due to its extreme poverty  low stand­ard of living and the still largely rural pop­u­la­tion which is 40% illit­er­ate. In Sierra Leone there were only 60 Doctors to serve a pop­u­la­tion of 6 mil­lion. With a low pro­tein diet it is still common for people to raid the jungle in search of meat.  The liking for fruit bats, apes and other game could be a factor as some spe­cies are known car­ri­ers of the virus.

The danger to med­ical staff is obvi­ous and our speaker out­lined his own train­ing by the MOD/Army Medical Corps in York.  After ini­tial suit­ab­il­ity tests, Charles under­took an intens­ive nine day course in York.  This included train­ing in a sim­u­lated Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC) ran­ging from dress­ing into and undress­ing from the com­plic­ated plastic pro­tect­ive kit, to the use of chlor­ine in the water supply, san­it­a­tion, rehyd­ra­tion tech­niques, drug applic­a­tions, dis­charge pro­ced­ures to hand­ling the cul­tural expect­a­tions of staff and patients.

It was soon time to put all this into prac­tice.  Charles flew to Freetown in early November for his second­ment.  After ini­tial induc­tion he spent five weeks at the Kerrytown ETC. Sparing us much of the details,  He described life in the heat of a pro­tect­ive suit where the body can lose 1.5 litres per hour, the dif­fi­culties of phys­ical and mental exhaus­tion and the inev­it­ab­il­ity of a high patient death rate.

Despite the trauma of all this, his story had a pos­it­ive side which gave encour­age­ment when facing sim­ilar out­breaks in the future. In par­tic­u­lar our speaker was impressed by:

  •  The gen­eral response of our UK Government, the MOD and Army.  Although this might have been cri­ti­cised by some as being ‘too little, too late’ the pro­fes­sion­al­ism, tech­niques and qual­ity of the Army train­ing staff were out­stand­ing.
  • The supply and logist­ical arrange­ments and the way per­son­nel over­came dif­fi­culties on the ground.
  • Above all, the gen­eral will­ing­ness and com­mit­ment of all involved to make a dif­fer­ence in a dif­fi­cult situ­ation. In par­tic­u­lar, the coordin­a­tion and cooper­a­tion with of teams from such diverse counties as Cuba, Norway, Italy and Spain.  However, with the excep­tion of Medicines Sans Frontieres and Save the Children, cooper­a­tion and coordin­a­tion by the Non- Government Organisations (NGOs) could have been better.


As one member summed it up “Our speaker has given us a fas­cin­at­ing insight into how, even in the most dif­fi­cult of cir­cum­stances, horror can be turned into hope”