We are now bearing witness to the most devastating outbreak of Ebola the world has ever seen. In the absence of a quick and decisive response from the developed world, the hemorrhagic fever has (as of this posting) sickened over seven thousand people and killed close to 3,500 in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia since December of last year. Poverty, lack of infrastructure, and misinformation are now creating near-impossible conditions in the struggle to contain the epidemic.
In the developed world, a case of Ebola is dangerous and devastating but entirely survivable with supportive care to replace lost proteins and electrolytes. With proper infrastructure and training, it is also possible to contain the disease, which spreads when the body fluids of an infected person spread to another’s eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin.
But that infrastructure, training, and supportive care are in scarce supply at the heart of the epidemic; and getting them set up will take time, during which experts predict that thousands more will become infected. Hospitals and treatment centers are turning people away daily; which means that sick people stay at home to be cared for by loved ones, who then become infected themselves. And when the sick do make it to the hospital, health workers in many places lack even basic protective gear, which puts them in danger of getting sick themselves.
But there are true bright spots in the middle of the hot zone. In July, Fatu Kekula, a 22 year-old Liberian nurse in training, saved her mother, father, and sister from the disease without becoming infected herself (her teenage cousin died despite her best efforts):
Fatu took care of them all, single-handedly feeding them, cleaning them and giving them medications.
And she did so with remarkable success. Three out of her four patients survived. That’s a 25% death rate — considerably better than the estimated Ebola death rate of 70%.
Fatu stayed healthy, which is noteworthy considering that more than 300 health care workers have become infected with Ebola, and she didn’t even have personal protection equipment — those white space suits and goggles used in Ebola treatment units.
Instead Fatu, who’s in her final year of nursing school, invented her own equipment. International aid workers heard about Fatu’s “trash bag method” and are now teaching it to other West Africans who can’t get into hospitals and don’t have protective gear of their own.
Every day, several times a day for about two weeks, Fatu put trash bags over her socks and tied them in a knot over her calves. Then she put on a pair of rubber boots and then another set of trash bags over the boots.
She wrapped her hair in a pair of stockings and over that a trash bag. Next she donned a raincoat and four pairs of gloves on each hand, followed by a mask.
It was an arduous and time-consuming process, but Fatu was religious about it, never cutting corners.
UNICEF Spokeswoman Sarah Crowe said Fatu is amazing.
“Essentially this is a tale of how communities are doing things for themselves,” Crowe said. “Our approach is to listen and work with communities and help them do the best they can with what they have.”
Ms. Kekula’s method is now being taught to other workers in far-flung areas where biohazard gear is not available, and her father is now looking for a scholarship for his brave, brilliant daughter so that she can finish her final year of nursing school.
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