A medical aid worker has given the first eye-witness account of the horrific scenes facing doctors and nurses battling to control the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in some of the poorest corners of West Africa.
Naoufel Dridi, who has 13 years’ experience working with the charity Médecins Sans Frontières said: “I have never had to deal with this many bodies in these few days on any job before.”
Mr Dridi, who has been coordinating emergency efforts in Guinea, where the number of suspected cases in Guinea has reached 122, with 78 already dead, described working with doctors in isolation wards.
“You can be helping somebody by getting them a juice, or a glass of cold water, or whatever he wants because you know really he has very little chance to survive, and then less than an hour later he is dead.
“Then when you are putting his body in the bag, another one behind you has died. Then another one. One old woman died with very bad external bleeding from her body, the symptoms that are the worst of Ebola. It is very difficult.”
The tropical virus leads to haemorrhagic fever, causing muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhoea and, eventually, organ failure and uncontrollable bleeding.
It is the first outbreak of the disease in West Africa in close to 20 years, and the first ever in Guinea. Morocco on Tuesday became the fifth country in the region to introduce strict controls at border posts to stop the spread of the disease, which has no vaccine, no cure, and kills as many as nine in 10 people it infects.
Saudi Arabia said it had suspended issuing visas for visits to its holy sites for Muslim pilgrims from Guinea and Liberia, the second country where Ebola has been confirmed, where four have also died. There are suspected cases also in Sierra Leone.
“The local medical staff maybe at first are not aware of the seriousness of this illness, especially in Guinea, where it is the first time they have Ebola,” said Mr Dridi, 41, who is French and lives in Geneva.
“We are there in our full protective equipment, and we are trying to tell everyone they must take care, that they must restrict people going in and out from the wards.
“We have to help them understand there are no drugs for this illness.”
Moving patients with the virus from open wards where they can infect medical staff or relatives to isolation tents which they have very little chance of leaving alive is “psychologically very hard”, he said.
“It is hard for the family, and for us,” Mr Dridi said. “They know we can only treat the symptoms, not the virus. Whether that person survives or not is only down to whether the body reacts well and fights the illness.”
Not everyone succumbs, however. “There was a young girl, 12 years old, she was infected but she was looking strong when I left, I hope that she will make it,” said Mr Dridi, who helped set up two isolation units in buildings behind a health centre in the southeastern town of Guéckédou that were constructed for an earlier cholera epidemic.
He arrived back to MSF’s Swiss headquarters on Tuesday night after 15 days in Guinea.
“I hope I don’t have to go back, because if I do that’s because we have not been able to manage the epidemic, and it has become serious enough that they need me there to coordinate more isolation units,” he said.
The major concern is that the outbreak cannot be contained in Conakry, Guinea’s densely-populated capital, where there are already several dozen cases and where it could spread very fast, Mr Dridi added.