By KABS KANU :
The Minister of Health and Sanitation, Madam Miatta Kargbo, today assured Sierra Leoneans all over the world that the Government of President Ernest Bai Koroma was doing everything , in collaboration with our international health organization stakeholders , to solve the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.
In an exclusive interview tonight with COCORIOKO, the Minister enumerated all the steps the Government had taken since the Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Liberia and what is presently being done to stop the spread of this deadly disease now that it has been confirmed that some victims have tested positive for Ebola.
HEALTH MINISTER MIATTA KARGBO
The Minister told COCORIOKO that the Government, the Centre For Disease Control, the Red Cross, the World Health Organization ( WHO ) , Medicin Sans Frontieres ( MSF ) , OXFAM, Save the Children, the National Task Force and all the movers and shakers of the health industry in Sierra Leone had been been on top of things and had been working since March when the news of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea first emerged. They had been working with Guinea and Liberia daily and having weekly task force meetings to monitor the country and also sensitize the people about measures they need to take to avoid an outbreak in Sierra Leone . The Task Force is made up of the Coordination, Labs and surveillance, Case Management and Communication Pillars. ( The minister outlined the functions of every one of them and I will publish that in Part 2 of the series on this interview ) .
“Since March, our surveillance team –composed of CDC personnel, U.S. Defence team, Tulane University Personnel and surveillance officers in all the districts–had been active in all the high risk areas around Kambia, Koinadugu, Bombali, Kono and Kailahun Districts which are close to the Guinea and Liberia borders. They have been investigating cases of diarrhea and vomitting .They decide what protocols and lab materials we need .The surveillance team has been all over the country training people, bringing in samples, testing them etc. We have been sensitizing the people in whatever language we could communicate with them , using loudspeakers , billboards and flyers” , the Minister explained. ” We received feedbacks from traders, business women , okada operators and community activists and from their reports and all the tests we ran we were able to say that there was no evidence of Ebola in Sierra Leone.”
But then came the outbreak last week. Ms. Kargbo said that since May 20, the Ministry’s surveillance team started having information about persistent cases of diarrhea and vomiting around the Kissy Tenga area . “We began accepting the cases .Our small community health centre began admitting them. The symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting were prevalent in these areas during this time of the year due to the river situations . We took blood and stool samples and took them to the Kenema Lassa Fever Lab where the Ministry had set up its Ebola Lab. I had just returned from Geneva.”
“On Sunday, I called a meeting of ministry , CDC and lab officials .By then, the Kenema team was working on the samples. It takes a while to run the tests . It took four hours and came out inconclusive. The next results came out at 11 : 30 pm that night I was urging and pressurizing the hospital staff to speed up. I needed these samples as soon as possible. They told me that I have to be patient because they had to be careful that the tests were run right . I called President Koroma and briefed him about everything. By 11: 30 pm , the labs came out and we saw we had a problem. One sample tested positive. I called President Koroma again and he said we had to announce it.”
The minister said she then called a meeting of her team and told them they were moving from investigations to response. After we went on the radio and announced the one case at Koindu, we had to bring her to the isolation centre. The isolation centre is the Kenema Hospital , which is one of the best Lassa Fever labs in West Africa. It was the one capable of testing for Ebola. It was here we tested the samples even for Guinea. That is why we transfer patients to this regional centre. We sent a specially-equipped ambulance to pick up the woman at Koindu. This was done by experts and some are whites. But we encountered a problem. On Monday, the family said they will not release her. By then, there were 5 of them and 3 more were added to them, making 8. Because of the treatment we had given them, they said they were feeling better and wanted to go home, but we said we were not going to release them because one of them had tested positive for Ebola. The family stood their ground. The doctor even called and spoke to the husband and he started to agree. By the time I got home from work at 8 pm, I heard that families had become very stubborn and vowed that we were not going to take their relatives anywhere. They threatened that they will soon start burning our vehicles and cutting off our heads “.
HOW THE FEAR STARTED
Guerkedu, which was the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea , is only 3 miles away from Kissy Teng. The people of Kissy Teng heard that all the patients brought to Guerkedu died. That is why they are afraid that their relatives would die too if taken to Kenema.
MPS HAVE BEEN SENT OUT TO THE EAST
The Members of Parliament ( MPs ) representing all the constituencies in Kailahun and Kono Districts have been dispatched to the district to help the Government and the health personnel receive the full cooperation of the people in their efforts to handle the problem ans stop the outbreak of the deadly disease. Almost all the MPs belong to the opposition SLPP and only Hon . Tengbeh is APC. They will all spend one week sensitizing their people and appealing for their fullest cooperation with the government and health personnel to bring out the victims they seized from the health centre and hid in the forest.
The Hon. Bernadette Lahai will lead the team going to Kenema while the Hon. Kortu will lead the team going to Kailahun. Another young M.P ( whose name she could not recall in a hurry ) is leading the team to Kono.
This action was necessitated by the standoff -like situation that developed when relatives of 8 victims being screened and some suspected of being positive for the disease stormed the isolation centre and took them away to hide them in the bush because fear had been spread that the victims were being taken to Kenema to be killed. The fear-mongers capitalized on the fatal nature of Ebola in that , according to the Minister, 99% of those found positive for the disease often die. The gullible people have been made to believe that these victims do not die of the disease but are killed. They were therefore afraid that if their relatives were taken to Kenema, they will die.
“We did not abandon the patients” , the minister emphasized. “Their relatives stormed the clinic and took them out .Anybody who wants to confirm that can call Dr. Squire and get the facts . The Town Chief was not able to talk to his people to bring the victims back. I went on the radio and appealed passionately with the people to bring the victims back .Four of the persons carried away have now tested positive for the disease.
THE MINISTER DID NOT ORDER ANY EBOLA VICTIM TO BE KILLED AND BURIED
The Minister strongly warned journalists to stop using the social media to incite the people of Sierra Leone by spreading dangerous lies and inciting stories about their country.”They are seriously hampering our work and in a sense destroying their country’s peace and stability . They want to also endanger the lives of our health team” . She warned that people should realize that Kailahun is a politically volatile district and such dangerous lies are capable of inciting the people to rise up against the government and foment chaos that could engulf the whole country.
She vehemently denied a story on social media by one of the country’s journalists that she had ordered patients suspected of carrying the Ebola virus to be killed and buried . She doubted the sanity of anybody who would concoct such a story and accuse somebody of doing such a horrendous act. She wondered who would ever have such a wicked thought in her mind.
THE MINISTRY HAS DECIDED TO CREATE MORE ISOLATION CENTRES IN KAILAHUN BECAUSE THE PLACE HAS BECOME THE EPICENTRE OF THE EBOLA OUTBREAK
Madam Miatta Kargbo further told COCORIOKO that seeing the resistance in Kailahun, the ministry decided to have more isolation centres there because the place had become the epicentre for the Ebola outbreak. “Today, we consulted MSF and we have got equipment to man these isolation centres. MSF has mobilized 2 isolation centres–One in Kailahun and the other in Koindu. We will appeal to these people that we will not take them to Kenema again. We will now use these centrea so they must release the patients. “
The Minister said another serious problem that has arisen is that even the people who came in contact with the 8 patients now need to be tested and isolated , but they have refused to be tested because they fear that they will be found positive and taken to Kenema and killed.
The Minister appealed to the people to bring back the patients so that they will be given the appropriate treatment .She believed that the MPs will help break the impasse. “Dr. Squire called me today and said the medical team had mobilized and began begging the people to bring back the patients .”
MEANWHILE, Dr. Squire got a call from Kenema today to inform the minister that three patients from Kissy Teng had reported to the Kenema medical facility. She and the doctor do not know how the patients got there. Alarmingly, one of the patients confided in doctors that she heard that her mother had died. The medical team learnt that the fatality was one of the patients relatives moved from Koindu to hide in the forest. ” DMO Dr. Vandi called Dr.Squire and told him. He asked Dr. Squire to go and tell the people and ask that nobody should touch the body. They should rather let the medical team go there .Our Lassa Fever team buried her today, ” the minister went on.
Minister Kargbo reported that when the medical team and police escort went to the village , everybody went into hiding. ” After the burial, our team was stoned and ordered to leave “, she further told COCORIOKO.
Ms. Miatta Kargbo pledged the commitment of her team to work hard to stop the Ebola outbreak in its tracks but she advised against secrecy also. She said that a Sowei woman ( a woman in charge of the female circumcision ) , her husband and grandkids had the symptoms. The Sowei died . The traditional society people went to wash the body . “Only now we have known that,” the minister complained . ” The symptoms began showing and this was how we knew. They had been keeping it secret.” She advised again that people should stop handling dead bodies and call on the medical team to do the work.
SEE PART 2 OF THE SERIES TOMORROW