Manchester’s fight against Ebola

The 2014 Ebola outbreak claimed the lives of 11,310 people. The HCRI here at The University of Manchester was instrumental in the UK’s response to this global crisis

Share During a 5 week deployment in Sierra Leone fighting Ebola, NHS volunteers lost up to 3kg in weight Click To Tweet Learn about Manchester's role in fighting the Ebola outbreak of 2014 Click To Tweet 11,310 people died in the recent Ebola outbreak, the HCRI helped prevent it getting any higher Click To Tweet

It was in 2014 that the deadliest outbreak of Ebola took hold of West Africa and claimed the lives of 11,310 people.

Sierra Leone, a country that was still reeling from an 11 year long civil war, bore a large brunt of this death toll with nearly 4,000 deaths.

Ebola initially causes flu-like symptoms: fever, headaches, fatigue. This is then followed by vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pains.

Internally, the virus begins by attacking your immune system before spreading throughout your body, and killing cells in many of your major organs.

Your immune system, at this stage damaged and confused, triggers what is known as a ‘cytokine storm’: its ‘nuclear’ defence option.

This may do some damage to the virus, but usually ends up harming your body much more. It is this immune response which eventually ends up killing Ebola patients, often only 2 weeks after the first symptoms.

Death rates can be as high as 90%.

The Ebola virus is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of infected people, and as such, endangered health professionals who treated victims, particularly as protective equipment and clothing was in short supply.

Many Sierra Leoneans endangered their lives to fight the outbreak; health workers were between 21 and 32 times more likely than the general adult population to be infected with the virus.

However, the scale of the outbreak meant that the health services in the affected countries became overwhelmed to the point that in August 2014 the World Health Organisation (WHO) called the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern.”

UK-Med, a medical NGO based in our Humanitarian Crisis Response Institute (HCRI), coordinated the UK response to the crisis. Part of this response was training NHS volunteers who were deployed to the UK Government-funded Ebola Treatment Centres in Sierra Leone.

UK-Med received 1978 applications but after a rigorous selection process, 153 NHS volunteers were sent over, with 40 others held on standby.

Impact

The NHS volunteers made a significant contribution to the international response, and ultimately provided essential support for Sierra Leonean healthcare workers.

The NHS volunteers, along with other international teams, assisted the Sierra Leonean healthcare workers in reducing the spread of the epidemic through survivor community engagement, community engagement and strengthened cultural engagement.

For the health-care workers and volunteers, a heightened risk of contracting the virus meant they were required to wear protective suits. Whilst this clothing was effective in shielding the workers from the virus, it was also extremely uncomfortable.

This was mostly due to the tropical temperatures in the region, making their already difficult job even more demanding. During their five-week deployment in Sierra Leone, 13 NHS volunteers lost more than 3kg in weight.

Stigma

Dealing with the threat of Ebola, contracting the virus or losing friends or family to it is difficult enough to deal with, but for many survivors their problems didn’t end after they were cured.

Many who were successfully treated for Ebola faced stigma from their communities after they returned, due to fear that they were still contagious.

Some survivors were evicted from their homes, became unemployed or were forced to relocate.

And this wasn’t just reserved for those who won their battle with the virus, but also for the burial workers and dedicated health-care workers who put their lives on the line to serve the sick, including the NHS volunteers.

40% of NHS volunteers reported that they had experienced social stigma on their return to the UK. This included weariness from family, friends or colleagues to outright prejudice.

HCRI

19th August is World Humanitarian Day which celebrates the life-changing and courageous work that is carried out by aid workers around the world.

It’s incredibly important that we celebrate the brave and selfless volunteers who endanger their own lives to save others.

In order to make sure their efforts continue to be valued and appreciated, it’s also crucial that we learn from their experiences.

This is where the HCRI comes in.

Globally recognised for its life-saving work, the HCRI, which was founded in 2008 with support from an alumnus of Manchester, recognises the power of interdisciplinary collaborations, bringing together the disciplines of medicine and the humanities to find solutions to crises occurring around the world.

The HCRI with its four pillars in research – humanitarianism, conflicts and disasters, and humanitarian response – is a unique configuration made possible over the years by the support of the University and its alumni and friends. Today, the HCRI is a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre

Many of the staff who work and lecture at the HCRI are experienced in crisis response, including Dr Amy Hughes MBE who supported the co-ordination and leadership of the UK NHS response to the crisis and Professor Tony Redmond OBE who is the Deputy Director of the HCRI, and founder of UK Med, and recently became the president of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine.

Having experienced and knowledgeable professionals working in the HCRI means that our students are learning from those who have played or continue to play leading roles in tackling crises around the world. This provides our students and researchers with the best possible preparation for going into the field or for research.

Having so many experienced staff members in one place fosters debate and encourages collaborations between different disciplines and partner organisations. It provides an environment where responses to crises can be developed and improved.

Using its vast expertise, the HCRI is preparing the next generation of academics, researchers, aid workers and volunteers who will be equipped with the skills and knowledge to tackle health emergencies or disasters in both the UK and abroad.

This ensures that the responses to these crises will be as effective and efficient as they possibly can.

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