Ebola – we stayed and we’re still there

Founding Director and King’s alumnus Dr Oliver Johnson arrived in Sierra Leone in early 2013 to help set up King’s Sierra Leone Partnership (KSLP). His role was to deliver better clinical services, training and research for a healthcare system devastated by civil war, during which 50,000 civilians and many healthcare workers were killed, by establishing an alliance between King’s Health Partners (KHP) and Sierra Leonean health institutions. At the start of the partnership there were fewer than 100 doctors practising in the public sector and high vacancy rates for nursing, midwifery and pharmacy roles.

A year later Ebola surfaced in West Africa. At Connaught Hospital in the capital, Freetown, Oliver and his colleagues prepared an isolation unit with two beds. But as April and May passed with no cases in Sierra Leone, they assumed they had evaded the outbreak. “People started saying quite confidently, we’ve dodged the bullet,” he remembers.

Then, in June, they began to hear horrific stories from the east of the country. Suddenly Oliver and his team found themselves at the centre of an epidemic. “There was an epic night, when the first suspected case arrived at Connaught – and then a second one. And we thought, we’ve used up our beds. Then a third suspected case came in, and we knew we had to change gear.”

At the epicentre of an epidemic
While other organisations withdrew their staff from Sierra Leone and many hospitals closed their doors, the King’s team remained in Freetown and kept Connaught open. They were at the frontline in the war against Ebola, tending to sick patients and establishing a command centre to co-ordinate 15 Ebola units and 30 ambulances across the city. Working closely with the Sierra Leonean Government and local and international partners, they helped set up treatment facilities in six hospitals. They also provided training to spread best practice quickly, all the while ensuring Connaught Hospital remained open for normal medical services.

Everyone involved faced great personal danger as they worked ceaselessly to contain the outbreak. At the epidemic’s peak, 550 new cases of Ebola were reported each week in Sierra Leone. Oliver returned to King’s to explain the situation and had KHP’s full backing not just to stay, but to gear up efforts.

As awareness of KSLP’s work grew donations poured in from the King’s community. This enabled 40 international volunteers to fly to Freetown and support Oliver’s team. It bought essential supplies such as protection suits, gloves and chlorine, and funded seven new isolation units, local staff training, and development of a rapid diagnostic test.