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Ebola outbreak in DRC: Staying Safe

12 Dec 2018

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Médecins Sans Frontières is fighting an outbreak of Ebola. Dr Saschveen Singh, a general practitioner from Perth, Western Australia, takes us behind the scenes to show how teams avoid spreading the disease while caring for infected patients.

MSF Dr Saschy Singh in DRC

Heart jumps at your throat

A gentle reminder

This is feeling alive

(“Palpitations” - a jiyuritsu (free form) haiku, Saschveen, Sept 2017)

After briefings in the MSF office in Geneva, I’ve finally arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo for my next assignment.

I’m joining teams on the ground that are tackling another Ebola crisis in a region crippled by limited health infrastructure. Ebola is highly contagious, so patients must be kept in isolation to avoid passing the disease on to others. For us as health professionals, that means wearing personal protective equipment – impermeable suits that prevent contact with infectious body fluids.

"Everything that goes into the “red zone” in the Ebola treatment centre must stay in there, including even paper and pens as they are a potential biohazard."

Butembo is 1,736 metres above sea level so thankfully the weather here is quite mild (it’s even super cold in the early mornings and on night shifts). That means it’s not too uncomfortably hot being in personal protective equipment (also known as PPE) on most days, but sometimes it gets very warm in the middle of the day and you have to stay hydrated.

 

Biohazards in the red zone

Everything that goes into the “red zone” in the Ebola treatment centre must stay in there, including even paper and pens as they are a potential biohazard.
 

MSF Dr Saschy Singh holds up notes across the barrier to the isolation zone in DRC

That means that in order to keep a record of a patient’s vital signs, we need to write them down inside the red zone, then hold them up, so a colleague on the other side of the barriers can copy them down. Nothing crosses the line.

After working inside the isolation zone we have to decontaminate and undress. As you can see from the video, it’s a slow and meticulous process and you have to pay close attention to every step. 

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We always have a “guardian angel” (Ange Gardien) – a member of staff on the other side of the barriers to the isolation zone, watching our teams on the inside to make sure they are safe and sound.

We are still dealing with new cases in a region where a general sense of mistrust and many false rumours about Ebola are hampering public health efforts to contain the outbreak ... so this epidemic is far from over.