First Person

Photos: On the front lines of Ebola prevention

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In Sierra Leone, Oxfam is helping people fight the deadliest outbreak of the disease in history.

Holly Taylor, a communications coordinator for Oxfam, traveled to Sierra Leone’s Freetown earlier this month to bring attention to the profound struggles people in West Africa face as they fight off the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history. The virus has now killed more than 4,500 people and infected an estimated 10,114. Taylor kept a diary and on Saturday, Oct. 24, the Boston Globe published entries from her first few days in the country. Below are excerpts from those diary pages and a selection of photos from her travels.

Oxfam is providing hand-washing stands and training teams of community health workers to spread the word about signs and symptoms of Ebola and how to prevent it. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

I met the campaigns and advocacy manager, who told me about the work Oxfam is doing to provide safe drinking water. She explained [that] the public health messaging tells people to wash their hands all the time, but in reality in poor rural areas where they have to walk miles to get water, they are not going to prioritize hand-washing — they prioritize drinking and cooking. That opened my eyes to the reality and the importance of providing clean tap water.

Hawa Sesay and her daughter Hawa Koroma use an Oxfam handwashing station in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

I traveled to the other side of Freetown to visit community health workers being trained by Oxfam. On the way, we went to the District Ministry of Health — the base for burial and surveillance teams. Seeing burial trucks and vans with spray hoses made it a bit more real. When I got out of the car, my colleagues told me not to touch anything.

Mimi, the public health promotion adviser, explained that burial teams take away the body but also burn all the clothes and sheets and mattress. The same thing happens when someone is brought in for treatment. This means survivors can be left without clothes, a bed, etc. Oxfam is going to provide packs with sleeping mats, sheets, cloths, and sanitary pads for these people. There are so many more casualties than those dying.

The idea in this area is to train mothers about how to stop the spread in the hope they will talk to other mothers and pass on the message. Women are often the most vulnerable because they are the primary caregivers. If their husbands or children are unwell, their instinct is to go and care for them. With Ebola, however, they stay clear of their children [and] must immediately report any symptoms. I cannot imagine how my mother would feel if she couldn’t hold me or comfort me if I was calling out to her.

Isata Sesay and Moriba Bangura listen to community health workers Adama Bangura, Abdul Razak Baimba, and Mary Kamara discuss Ebola. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

I went with our photographer to Tengeh Town, an area in Freetown. We met up with local people volunteering as Oxfam community health workers and followed them around. They are giving up their time and putting themselves at further risk to try to save their communities. One of them, a woman named Mary, told me her friend lost 10 of her family members from the same house.

I also met Priscilla, who is a community health supervisor and nurse. She said she was worried about her child and nieces and nephews because she works at a hospital (that doesn’t treat Ebola), where one of her colleagues died and another is ill with the virus. She said she is worried that if she gets sick she would infect them, because how do you explain to a child that they can’t touch their mother? It’s an example of another brave lady worried about everyone else, putting her own life at risk. Imagine the burden of knowing that you are placing your children’s lives in danger but if you don’t work, you won’t have food on the table.

Everywhere I went, people thanked me — well, actually, Oxfam — for still being here.

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