I’m not really sure how I decided to go to Sierra Leone, but the seeds were probably planted by an email I received from my lovely wife: “Can I please go to Sierra Leone to work in an Ebola lab?” My response was a simple “yes” – I was happy that she wanted to go, for all sorts of reasons; it made her laugh and smile. Who can resist such enthusiasm? She left for Sierra Leone to join team 4 in Port Loko and returned 7 weeks later, absolutely bubbling with enthusiasm to the extend that I invited her to give a talk about her experience to a group of undergraduate bioscience students at the University of Surrey. It was a fantastic talk, (I know, I am mildly biased) and the response of the students was amazing with a whole range of interesting and engaging questions.
At some point in July 2015 I eventually put in an application for deployment and over the summer (5 Aug – 3 Sept 2015) I was deployed to Port Loko, Sierra Leone, to work in the Ebola diagnostics laboratory run by Public Health England. Okay, I was quite nervous; I am a biochemist and not a virologist; more pertinently, I have not actively worked in a laboratory for more than 10 years. It’s like riding a bicycle, they said. It was time to get out of the comfort zone and off I went on an intensive 5-day training program near Salisbury that included working in a replica laboratory, as well as dealing with different scenarios that we could encounter while in the laboratory. Furthermore, we had to undergo a health check, which included too many vaccinations to report, and a psychological resilience test. Two sore arms and a tired brain later (from the training and the resilience test), and I was was on a 06:40 flight from Heathrow airport that required a 04:30 am taxi – yawn!
We flew to Lungi Airport, Freetown, via Brussels; the airport was an interesting experience, with taxi drivers etc. approaching us before we were even through immigration or had picked up our luggage. Currency exchange from $US to Leone was a rather straightforward process, with an exchange rate of approximately 5,000 Leone per dollar; $100 got a rather large wadge. A minibus was waiting to transport us to Port Loko, approximately 90 minutes down an impressively well-maintained tar road. I had joined up with five team mates (Port Loko team 10) in London and Brussels. Everybody seemed a bit awestruck and the drive was a bit “look here, look there”. My first impressions were of a lush, green environment and many palm trees; also, we spotted many people in small social gatherings in the houses along the route. It later became clear that the Saloneans are very warm, communal people.
On arrival in Port Loko, I tried to shake the hand of the waiting team leader. First error: there was a no-touch policy in Sierra Leone! We were accommodated in a GOAL camp (an Irish NGO; https://www.goalglobal.org/), actually a hotel, where we had on-suite (single) rooms with showers, air-conditioning and intermittent wifi access (a little too first-world for my liking), with excellent meals provided three time a day.
Satellite image of Port Loko, Sierra Leone. Base camp was a bumpy 15 minute car trip from the ETC, where the laboratory was located. (https://email@example.com,-12.7728444,4229m/)
Our first full day in Port Loko involved a few induction talks covering an overview of the Ebola Treatment Center, transport arrangements, facilities, security (mainly of personal belongings), and a surprise allowance ($100). Dr Mo gave us a nice overview of Sierra Leone’s (lion mountains) history and culture, including an introduction to “aporto”, a word we would hear quite a lot on our walks into Port Loko, the “jungle” and on a surveillance trip.
Reality calls – to be continued…