Surprisingly, there is a relatively small group of people involved in supporting the laboratories in Sierra Leone and they have all done a fantastic job. I was in Sierra Leone for around five weeks, but I hope to return several times over the next 12 months. Why is this work important? The people of Sierra Leone were very welcoming. We had many people come up to thank us for all our efforts. One thing that did surprise me is the sheer number of people in Sierra Leone that have their own small businesses. With two young children under the age of seven, and a job, she has had a very busy time when I was in Sierra Leone. What can we learn from this epidemic? Firstly, the epidemic is not over, so until no more cases are occurring, the international efforts must continue. It will be sometime before we know the true impact of the epidemic but its effects stretch much further than the individuals that were infected.
What is your day job? Tell us a bit about your research…
My main research focus is virus-host interactions, focusing primarily on noroviruses, the major cause of gastroenteritis in the developed world. We’ve used a variety of approaches to try to understand the viral life cycle and more recently have taken the first steps towards the identification of therapeutic approaches for the control of norovirus infection in patients. My interests have recently spread into other areas of virology such as the zoonotic potential of viruses and host responses to viral infection.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be supported by the Wellcome Trust my entire independent scientific career (some 13 years now); initially via a Career Development Fellowship, then subsequently by a Senior Fellowship, which was renewed in 2012. The funding, and the other forms of support, I have had from the Trust over the years have been instrumental in the success of the lab.
Why did you decide to go to Sierra Leone?
I finally made the decision to go to Sierra Leone during the late summer of 2014 after following the media coverage of the Ebola outbreak closely over the preceding months. The coverage was harrowing, particularly for a virologist, as I understand how, with the right expertise and infrastructure, it is relatively easy to contain Ebola. The combination of urbanization and underdeveloped healthcare systems created a ‘perfect storm’ type scenario for Ebola to establish a foothold in West Africa.
There is one article in the New York Times that I will never forget. It describes the awful situation in Makeni, which was where I was finally based for my trip, and is the second largest city in Sierra Leone. The accompanying picture will always stay fresh in my mind; it shows a young child, lying on a floor covered in bodily fluids.
I could not sit by and watch the situation unfold without trying to do something to help.
After several months of trying to find a way of helping, I eventually managed to get in touch with Save the Children, who passed my details on Dr Tim Brooks. Dr Brooks is the Public Health England (PHE) lead for the laboratories in Sierra Leone, and along with a few other very hard working individuals at PHE, has done a truly amazing job at establishing the diagnostic capabilities in Sierra Leone.
Surprisingly, there is a relatively small group of people involved in supporting the laboratories in Sierra Leone and they have all done a fantastic job. Many of them, including Tim and the other senior managers, have been away from their families for many months and have not had a single day off since arriving in Sierra Leone. It’s been a real pleasure working with them.
I was in Sierra Leone for around five weeks, but I hope to return several times over the next 12 months. The outbreak is far from over and I, like many others, suspect it will be a long and bumpy ride so we need to continue our efforts.
What were your first impressions when you arrived – did things seem better, worse, or the same as media reports had described?
The first impressions were much better than I had thought. The few media reports that made it to the UK during the summer would lead you to believe that the epidemic had caused an almost complete breakdown of society in Sierra Leone. While there is a clear impact, the vast majority of the population appear to be going about their everyday life as normal. There were plenty of roadblocks, bleach buckets outside every building and lots of notices highlighting the dangers of Ebola, but otherwise the main population appeared to be going about their business.
What was your role in Sierra Leone?
I was part of a team of 10 volunteers from various parts of the UK sent by PHE to establish a diagnostic facility in Makeni. We were the first team to be deployed to Makeni and we deployed under the umbrella of International Medical Corps to work at an Ebola treatment center (ETC) built by the Royal Engineers and funded by the UK Department for International Development.
The team was made up of several biomedical scientists from the UK, research staff…