LIBBY Bowell may be physically, mentally and emotionally drained after five weeks helping to control the deadly Ebola epidemic in Liberia, but her remarkable resolve to see the disease eradicated has not wavered.
‘‘It was difficult to leave – there’s still a lot to be done and if I could have stayed longer, I would have happily stayed longer,’’ Ms Bowell said.
‘‘The Liberians are very grateful for any help they get and they see it’s an enormous sacrifice for us to leave our families and go there – but all the American troops are far from being on the ground and while there’s certainly people turning up, we’re too slow.
‘‘They need more help, they need a lot more people and a lot more resources, they can’t afford to run out of supplies.
‘‘We’re still behind it – we’re nowhere near it.’’
The Australian Red Cross health aid worker left Liberia on October 10 and is in 21 days of isolation, keeping a low profile and venturing from her Cooks Hill home only for the occasional walk and to visit the supermarket when it is not busy.
Ms Bowell had been on about 20 Red Cross missions when she flew to Liberia’s capital Monrovia on September 4 as the organisation’s emergency health co-ordinator for the Ebola response.
When she arrived, the highly contagious Ebola virus disease had spread to 13 of Liberia’s 15 counties, more than 2000 people were infected and more than 1000 people had died.
During her five-week stay, the disease swept through the remaining two counties and the tally rose to 4200 people infected and 2400 dead, including 15 doctors and about 80 nurses.
‘‘The feeling is one of desperation, there’s still not enough beds by several hundred and the existing health infrastructure is completely overwhelmed,’’ she said.
Ms Bowell said that in some cases, the sick who were unable to get an ambulance were using taxis to travel between full treatment centres, where they were turned away and had to go home, potentially infecting other family members.
Others would seek assistance from – and subsequently infect – health workers in their homes.
She said she had also heard of healthy pregnant women who needed to go to hospitals – which had been closed to prevent transmission of the disease and where medical staff had been redeployed elsewhere to fight the outbreak – risking infection for a bed at a treatment centre where they could give birth.
‘‘Every day it goes up by about 50 to 70 cases and between 30 to 50 deaths across the country and the really scary part is it’s in the city, in Monrovia, where the numbers continue to escalate – it’s much harder to contain because it’s such a denser population,’’ she said.
Ms Bowell worked for an average of 17 hours a day in a non-clinical role that involved training Liberian Red Cross volunteers in three areas: educating communities about how to protect themselves and prevent the further spread of Ebola; how to remove and manage dead bodies; and how to psychologically support family members of those who had been infected or died.
She also developed a program to teach families how to provide temporary care for a sick relative awaiting transport or treatment, including how to provide food and dispose of waste while maintaining a safe distance.
Despite travelling to some remote communities, Ms Bowell said she didn’t feel at risk of infection.
She washed her hands at least 20 times a day, had her temperature taken regularly, did not hug or shake hands with anyone and only had to wear the head-to-toe protective suit once, when she was providing training to the 16 teams of six people who make 10 trips a day to remove highly contagious bodies from homes, spray properties and take the dead to a crematorium.
Up to 50 people are cremated at a time, with the Liberian government keeping the ashes from each day for a memorial to be erected once the disease is eradicated.
When Ms Bowell’s period in isolation concludes at the end of the month, she plans to visit her parents in Kempsey and resume travelling in her role as national education manager with CRANAplus, promoting health in remote Australian regions.
But she will never be able to forget what she saw in Liberia.
‘‘The local people kept me motivated, they keep getting up every day and doing this [aid work],’’ she said.
‘‘They do it with dignity and energy and they believe they have to keep doing it to get this dreaded disease out of their country – then they cry at night.
‘‘I’ve got something to give and while it’s tough and sad, it’s tougher and sadder for them and they can’t leave.
‘‘The feeling is this will continue into next year and we have to continue to help – they can’t do this on their own.’’
To donate to the Red Cross Ebola appeal