Authored article

Ebola: let's remember the people at the heart of the outbreak

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Gina Radford writes in the Huffington Post about the Ebola outbreak.

With getting on for 10,000 people dead, and countless more affected, Ebola has left an enormous scar on the people of affected countries in West Africa, principally in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Schools closed, jobs lost, whole villages virtually wiped out. There is no doubt that Ebola has been a great tragedy for the region. No one can have been unaffected by the stories on the news. And I am sure most of us have wondered what the risk is for us in this country.

So firstly, let’s put Ebola in perspective. It’s one of a group called viral haemorrhagic diseases - another example is Lassa fever. It’s not new and was first discovered almost 40 years ago. It’s thought that fruit bats, a delicacy for some West Africans, are the natural host, along with some types of monkey. There is no proven vaccine or cure, though drug trials are underway. Experimental drugs such as ZMapp have been used, although their effectiveness is unproven.

Early symptoms include sudden fever and headache. Later on vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding can develop. Once caught, Ebola is particularly aggressive, and fatality rates in the current outbreak are about 55%.

However, it’s not an easy virus to catch. It’s not like flu - it can’t be transmitted through the air. It can only be caught from direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids - such as vomit, diarrhoea or blood. The virus isn’t thought to be able to live outside the body for very long, and can be killed by bleach or detergent. A person is only infectious once they develop symptoms, and symptoms can take between 2 and 21 days to develop.

So the bottom line is: Ebola isn’t easy to catch through ordinary social contact, such as sitting next to someone or shaking hands.

We have had 2 cases in the UK with returning healthcare workers who acquired the disease in this outbreak in West Africa. Healthcare workers are at particular risk because they work closely with body fluids. That is why they wear protective clothing and are highly trained.

They are doing an incredible job, putting their lives at risk to care for patients and help stop the spread of the disease. I applaud each of them - nurses, doctors, paramedics, laboratory workers and many others.

The good news is that it looks as if the epidemic is declining in West Africa, with the number of cases continuing to decrease. This has been down to a mammoth task of trying to diagnose and isolate cases fast. Efforts have been made to trace patients’ contacts so they can be monitored for the disease and isolated if they develop symptoms. Changes to local burial customs have meant that dead bodies, which are very infectious, don’t become the source of other cases.

But it’s not completely over just yet. Cases are still occurring, and many healthcare workers are still part of our ongoing response. Let us spare a thought for them, their families, and the people of West Africa.

Professionally I am a doctor, a public health specialist, and Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England. My whole professional life has been motivated by a sense that people matter - and that somehow we need to find ways to improve and enhance people’s life experiences and opportunities. I am no head in the clouds idealist. We need to focus on what actually makes a difference - which is often the seemingly small things. Each of those healthcare workers who have gone to West Africa would have made a wonderful contribution on their own, but put them together and the impact is incredible.

The same motivation drives me outside my paid employment. I am a lay minister in the Church of England and training to be a priest. With 6 small rural parishes to look after (as we don’t have a vicar at the moment), I am kept firmly on my feet dealing with people’s very real concerns and issues. It is a wonderful leveller, and after a day of thinking about national policy, or being in high level discussions on something, I am brought back to what is important to people, here and now.

When I receive a call that someone has had a terminal diagnosis, or the organist has flu, or what am I going to do about dog fouling in the churchyard - I am, again, reminded that life is not just about facts and figures - it’s about experiences, hopes, and concerns. It’s not just about physical health, but also about who we are - and how we live emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Being prepared to ask questions, to seek information and answers, and help others to do the same is, I think, absolutely key to all my roles.

So, as important as the facts and figures about Ebola are, let’s not forget the people at the heart of this - both here and in West Africa.

Dr Gina Radford
Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Gina Radford