22 Oct 2014

On the Ebola frontline in Sierra Leone

In some neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Freetown, Ebola orphans are left to fend for themselves while ambulances can’t respond to Ebola calls. Science Editor Tom Clarke reports from Crab Town.

The first thing that strikes you about the Crab Town settlement clinging to the shores of Freetown is how Ebola hasn’t spread through it faster.

It’s a sprawling neighbourhood of one-room shacks and half-built concrete homes. Alleyways barely more than shoulder-width apart lead between them. Water comes from a stream running through the estuary on which Crab Town is built. There is no sewerage.

If Ebola was a more contagious virus it would have torn through this community in days. But it’s not. It’s a lazy, awkward pathogen. It requires a formal introduction between its host and its host-to-be: The gentle wipe of a fevered brow by a mother tending to a sick child; A husband and wife’s embrace; A son’s unwashed hands after caring for a sick father.

But once such formalities are over, in these neighbourhoods to which the ambulances are not coming, Ebola kills very efficiently indeed.

We went to Crab Town because we’d heard a 10 year-old boy Ishmael Sissay, or “Odate” to his neighbours, was home alone for two days after his sick father passed away. His mother had already died of Ebola then his sister. In all probability he is now infected with Ebola too (see video below).

His neighbours know this. That’s why no one can take him in. They called the new government Ebola hotline “117” as soon as his father died. But no one came. Only when the Red Cross intervened, with whom we filmed on Tuesday, did an ambulance arrive to take him away.

His story is heart-breaking, but Odate has had more luck than some. His neighbour Mohammed Sissay, an ex-soldier, called friends who new people at the Red Cross. Someone eventually came to his aid. If he is infected, and a bed can be found for him at a treatment centre, early intervention could mean he stands a better chance of survival than the rest of his family ever had.

Just yards from his house a three month-old baby died from suspected Ebola in a home already quarantined after other family members died.

After we broadcast Odate’s story we heard, but have yet to be able to confirm, that the Sierra Leone military has been asked to take over responsibility for Ebola ambulances from the Ministry of Health.

And viewed from the alleyways of Crab Town it looks very much like only a military-style response could get Ebola here in check.

(All photos and filming in Crab Town, by John Templeton)