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
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.”
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
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