News - February 2, 2015

Surrounded by ebola

Two Wageningen UR staff members have gone to the ebolastricken region of Sierra Leone as volunteers. The aim: to set up a mobile lab for identifying the virus quickly. They are confronted with the effects of the deadly disease on a daily basis. ‘One day after the test the patient was dead.’

Since March 2014, West Africa has been plagued by an outbreak of the ebola virus. There have been 9000 registered deaths already in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, but the true number of victims is thought to be much higher. The virus can be transmitted through saliva and sweat. A handshake or a sneeze can be enough to spread this deadly disease.

Combatting the virus is complicated by the fact that the initial symptoms are the same as those of malaria or flu. Local hospitals lack the technology to identify the virus in blood, so patients are only quarantined when it is too late. To solve the problem the Netherlands recently shipped three mobile ebola labs to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

One of the labs is being run by Bart Kooi and Heleen Klos, who work at the Central Veterinary Institute in Lelystad, a Wageningen UR institute which works on combatting and prevention animal diseases. They volunteered for the job. Together with an ex-CVI worker and a doctor from the Erasmus Medical Centre, they set up and started using the first lab container or ‘hospitainer’ at the beginning of January. Bart Kooi answered our questions from Sierra Leone by email.


Can you describe where you are now?

‘We are now in Koidu City, the capital of the most eastern province of Sierra Leone. Koidu is the country’s diamond centre and was one of the flashpoints of the civil war in this country. Our workplace is on the compound of a local clinic, the Wellbody Alliance. Here we set up our hospitainer – a large shipping container equipped as an analysis lab.’

Ebola-Onderweg van Russian Palace to Koidu.JPG

Is the project going to plan?

‘From the moment we arrived in December we have been working 12 hours a day. Everything here had to be set up and organized. Our hospitainer turned out to be too small for all the things we need. So we had a fence built around the lab to create an outdoor space where we could take samples safely.

On 10 January a big truck arrived, full of lab material from the Netherlands. That enabled us to equip our lab and carry out all sorts of tests to see whether the apparatus and procedures worked well. We did the first full round of tests on our own blood. Fortunately that went well. The vice president of Sierra Leone officially opened the Dutch ebola lab on 16 January.’


Are you already doing ebola tests?

Yes, we tested the first real blood samples on 13 January. A Red Cross ambulance brought us the first samples. Heleen got to open them. Six hours later the first PCR test results were ready and we saw on our screen that there were positive samples. We really felt extremely sad – alongside the excitement of having completed the first test successfully. The next day we heard that one of the patients we had tested was dead. That really brings you right down to earth: ebola is for real. People are still dying now.’


What is it like to live in an ebola area?

‘At first sight there is not much to show for it. You don’t see sick people on the streets, where it seems like business as usual. There are an awful lot of checkpoints along the road, and billboards warning about ebola. Here and there, there are buckets of chlorinated water for disinfecting your hands. And at official places such as District Ebola Response Centres your temperature is taken when you go in.’


How do you deal with it?

‘There is a ‘no contact’ regime in force here, so you don’t shake hands or touch anyone. And then you have to be very careful. In and around the lab we wear protective clothing of course, although not as heavy-duty as what nurses wear in the hospitals. Today I popped into town with a colleague to get a few things at the supermarket. You can do that as usual, but there too you avoid physical contact with people.’

Where are you staying?

‘We are staying at the Diamond Lodge Hotel Koidu, also known as the Russian Palace because it is owned by the Sierra Leonean ambassador to Russia. Superficially it looks very luxurious, with spacious apartments, lots of marble and glossy Chinese imported goods. But nothing is finished. And I’ve been having cold showers for over a week for lack of hot water.’


What strikes you most about the country?

‘The life on the streets, the dust, the bad roads and the open air slaughterhouse complete with vultures. But what has touched me most is people’s enthusiasm, their friendliness and the positive attitude, even after years of civil war and now this ebola epidemic. I find that really incredible and humbling.


Voluntary work

Bart Kooi and Heleen Klos have been sent out for four to six weeks by Netherlands Enterprise Agency RVO, and are working in Sierra Leone with Partners in Health. They have taken unpaid leave but Wageningen UR will make sure they continue to receive their pay while they are in Sierra Leone. This is possible because of all the days off donated by colleagues. Want to join in? You can contribute a day (8 hours) or part of one by sending an email to Mention the ebola campaign and your department in the subject line, and explain which sort of day off and how many hours you are donating. Besides Bart and Heleen, six other CVI workers have volunteered to staff the ebola lab. They will probably be sent out in the coming months.