The African Ebola outbreak has undoubtably been one of the worst epidemics of the 21st century. Between 2013–2016, the World Health Organisation has estimated that there were a total of 28,616 cases and 11,310 deaths as a result; but the true scale of the contagion is still unknown. However, statistics only tell us one story. To understand the full devastation caused by this disease, we need to examine the accounts of people who are actually on the ground, fighting a seemingly-impossible battle against a terrifying sickness.
One such person is British doctor Oliver Johnson, who worked in Sierra Leone in 2013 during the height of the epidemic, and who witnessed first-hand the horrors which the illness could inflict upon people. A team of 100 doctors were desperately attempting to treat a population of nearly 7 million people. Oliver was stationed at at Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, and saw families decimated and bodies piled one on top of one another due to lack of space. It was clear that although Oliver had only just graduated from King's College, even the most experienced doctors were totally out of their depth.Describing the chaos, Oliver stated:
"Quite early on, a lot of the senior medics were infected and died. This had a pretty negative impact on the junior doctors, too. As things got worse and worse and as more and more doctors started dying and the number of patients just kept growing, I knew I had to help."
"One day I came into the hospital and there was a patient dying in the hallway, with blood flowing everywhere. Staff and relatives were trying to help, but none were wearing gloves or the right kind of protection. I knew I had to do something. That was the moment when I stepped in and for the first time put on those protective suits."He added:
"I spent a lot of time moving dead bodies and trying to reassure scared and upset patients, who believed it was all a foreign conspiracy. When the outbreak started in the summer of 2014, we kept thinking that the experts would come at some point and relieve us, but that never really happened."
"By the time they did we had already become experts ourselves. We were so overwhelmed all the time. The speed at which Ebola transmits and kills is terrifying. One night I remember going into a ward of six and talking with them about their families and then saying goodnight to them all. The next morning when I went to check up on them, they were all dead."
Oliver returned to England in 2015, when the virus was beginning to abate, and will be returning to the Democratic Republic of Congo later this year. He believes that the ebola virus has not been defeated, only suppressed.
All we can do is hope that we have learned from the lessons of the past, and trust that doctors are as compassionate as Oliver, and the others who died treating patients in Sierra Leone, and that they will be up to the task next time.