GO­ING WHERE AN­GELS FEAR TO TREAD Zinhle Mapumulo

Four of SA’s most fear­less health pro­fes­sion­als who went to Sierra Leone to fight Ebola speak to

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Chantel Le Roux

Noth­ing and no one could change Le Roux’s mind about go­ing to Sierra Leone to fight the Ebola out­break. Her par­ents tried in vain, cit­ing the dan­gers of go­ing to a coun­try where hun­dreds were in­fected with the deadly virus.

Le Roux (35) was very ex­cited when she left South Africa in early Au­gust. But her mood changed when she touched down at Hast­ings Air­port in Free­town, Sierra Leone. The dan­ger had be­come real. Sud­denly, her par­ents’ re­sis­tance to the trip flooded her mind.

“I was sud­denly scared, think­ing: ‘What if a mis­take hap­pened and I got in­fected?’”

Le Roux’s fear was un­der­stand­able as this was her first in­fec­tious dis­ease out­break re­sponse. She strug­gled to con­vince her par­ents she would re­turn home alive and well.

“My par­ents were scared and it took some time to con­vince them that I will be okay.”

For­tu­nately, noth­ing hap­pened to Le Roux in the six weeks she spent test­ing highly con­ta­gious spec­i­mens.

Petrus Janse van Vuren

It was al­ways his dream to be part of a team re­spond­ing to an in­fec­tious dis­ease out­break. So when the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Com­mu­ni­ca­ble Dis­eases (NICD) an­nounced it would be send­ing a team of vi­rol­o­gists to Sierra Leone to fight the Ebola out­break, Van Vuren was the first to put up his hand.

At that mo­ment, he did not think about his wife and twoyear-old child. He ad­mits it was not easy con­vinc­ing his wife that this was some­thing he had to do.

“I am still con­vinc­ing her even now. My wife was scared like any other per­son would be when you men­tion you’re go­ing to a coun­try ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an Ebola out­break. But I as­sured her the risk was min­i­mal be­cause I am a well-trained vi­rol­o­gist and know how to pro­tect my­self.”

Van Vuren, who has been work­ing as a vi­rol­o­gist at the NICD for eight years, said even though the sit­u­a­tion was dev­as­tat­ing in Free­town, he had no re­grets.

“The only thing that hit me was when I saw young chil­dren in­fected and af­fected by Ebola. I thought: ‘What if this was my child?’ The ex­pe­ri­ence also made me ap­pre­ci­ate the ca­pac­ity and in­fra­struc­ture we have in South Africa.”

Janusz Paweska

For Pro­fes­sor Paweska, this was just another as­sign­ment in a med­i­cal sci­ence ca­reer span­ning decades. He was the com­man­der in chief in the mo­bile lab and knew the risks as­so­ci­ated with this as­sign­ment. Although he had a well-trained team, safety was his pri­or­ity.

To guar­an­tee that his team did not come into dan­ger­ous con­tact with the blood spec­i­mens taken from sus­pected Ebola car­ri­ers, he made sure that none of his team mem­bers touched the sam­ples or came into close con­tact with them. A plas­tic tent where the spec­i­mens were sep­a­rated be­fore

Gun­ther Meier

be­ing tested was used as a bar­rier be­tween them and the sam­ples. The tent, which he called the “glove box”, had four arm ports.

Ex­plain­ing how they moved the spec­i­mens to the test­ing ma­chine, Paweska said: “I would be stand­ing on the other side and Janse on the other. We would both be wear­ing pro­tec­tive cloth­ing and four lay­ers of gloves – three sur­gi­cal gloves and heavy duty gloves. Tubes con­tain­ing blood sam­ples are placed in Zi­plock bags filled with de­con­tam­i­na­tion so­lu­tion be­fore trans­porta­tion out of glove box and bio­con­tain­ment.”

Meier’s job was tech­ni­cal support and man­ag­ing lo­gis­tics. He took de­liv­ery of the spec­i­mens when brought into the mo­bile lab.

“I would meet the per­son de­liv­er­ing the spec­i­mens at the door while dressed in my pro­tec­tive gear. In my hand would be a plas­tic bag where the spec­i­mens would be dropped to en­sure that I have no con­tact with them.” It wasn’t the first time Meier found him­self in such a po­si­tion. “I have re­sponded to sim­i­lar out­breaks be­fore and for me it’s about bring­ing help to those who need it most. I would be ly­ing if I said it’s not a dan­ger­ous job, con­sid­er­ing one in two bloods tested at the lab were pos­i­tive, but we are well trained to do this kind of work.”

Meier said his wife and two kids now un­der­stood his decision to be part of out­break re­sponse teams in var­i­ous coun­tries. “At first it was not easy for them. But with time, they re­alised that I al­ways come back alive and well.”

HIGH ALERT Aaron Mot­soaledi

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