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”