Geneva doctors dress for battle with Ebola virus
Sweating behind fogged-up goggles, Thanh Dang meticulously follows each instruction as she peals away layers of protective clothing, stopping repeatedly to wash her double-gloved hands in chlorine disinfectant.
The routine may seem excessive in this pristine, upscale Geneva neighbourhood with the late autumn sun reflecting off snow-covered Alps in the distance.
But the young doctor knows this is a matter of life and death — any missteps could prove fatal when she arrives in Ebola-ravaged Liberia in a few days.
“The undressing is really stressful, because you’re really hot and you can’t see anything,” she told AFP after guardedly stripping off her final bit of protective gear and washing her hands for the last time.
Standing inside a white tent pitched behind the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC), Dang is one of around 30 doctors, nurses, lab technicians and water and sanitation workers gathered for a crash-course in how to deal with one of the deadliest viruses known to man.
They come from around the world and most of them work for the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Like Dang, many are about to head into the West African epicentre of the epidemic that has killed nearly 5,000 people.
“Everything in the high-risk area with confirmed cases is a risky activity and in the training we stress very much that you have to plan every step you take,” explained course leader and ICRC’s head of emergency health Panu Saaristo.
Ebola is spread only through close contact with the sweat, vomit, blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person who has begun showing symptoms.
This puts health workers caring for the sick especially at risk of contracting the virus, which kills around 70 percent of its victims, often shutting down their organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.
Prepared for anything
Saaristo, who himself has spent weeks in Guinea where the outbreak began late last year, pointed out that one of the most dangerous things for health workers in the field is to simply open the ambulance doors.
“You can never be really sure of what is behind the doors,” he said, pointing out that you could find highly contagious corpses or “a dozen people presenting horrible Ebola symptoms. That is something you have to be prepared for.”
The Finn stressed though that if the protective gear is used correctly and all the routines are followed to the letter, Ebola treatment centres are likely the safest places to be in areas coping with the epidemic.
“When you follow the infection prevention and control protocols meticulously, the level of awareness is different than what it likely is among the general population,” he said.
But there are numerous steps to memorise, and the volunteers easily spend 20 minutes getting on their gear and even longer removing it, despite help from a dedicated dresser/undresser.
“If ever one of these steps went wrong…,” said Erica Burton of MSF, as she looks into a mirror to check that her mask and helmet are properly attached to her plastic yellow jumpsuit.
“Right now I can almost just breathe. I’m very hot,” she said, worrying that all the equipment, in a far hotter Africa, would make communicating with and caring for patients “quite the challenge”.
After the two-day course in Geneva, Saaristo said the aid workers would undergo further training when they reach their postings in the field to ensure they had the safety routines down.
ICRC and MSF aim to host such training sessions each week in Geneva, and are also conducting sessions in Madrid.
Cristina Estrada, ICRC’s head of operations quality assurance, lamented, however, that that growing panic and stigma attached to Ebola were making it more difficult to convince aid workers to go to the region.
Instead of being hailed for doing a desperately needed job, returning heath workers were being treated like criminals, she said.
“What we are facing back home is not nice.”
Dang said she had put her fears of stigmatisation aside for now.
“Right now I just want to think about where I am going and how I can best do my job,” she said.