Ebola Frontline: Flooding in Sierra Leone Exacerbates Public Health Fears

Floods in Kenema
Flooding in Kenema, Sierra Leone is exacerbating an already over-burdened health care system. Abu Bakhar Shaw

As Sierra Leone continues to reel from the Ebola outbreak, no one feels the danger more than the residents of Kenema and Kailahun, where a military blockade keeps the residents in lockdown, even as the cities continue to receive new Ebola patients from around the country.

Even under normal circumstances this is a difficult time of year for Sierra Leoneans. The rains fall hardest from June to August, making travel and work much more difficult. Food stocks diminish while the price of food moves higher. For rural farmers, these months are called "the hungry season."

In Kenema this weekend, several hours of rain triggered flash floods. The worst hit was the downtown market area, where three died and at least ten houses were destroyed, according to local shopkeepers. The floodwaters have mostly subsided by now, but it was these conditions that brought about the last public health emergency in Sierra Leone: the 2012 Cholera outbreak.

Floods in Kenema - 2
In Sierra Leone, every June to August is called "the hungry season" — when heavy rains make it hard to harvest and obtain food. Abu Bakhar Shaw

The problem, though, is that if the stagnant water were to make someone sick this week, no one in Kenema or Kailahun will go to the hospital—since the Ebola outbreak, people don't believe hospitals are safe. More than 20 nurses and healthcare workers had died of Ebola so far, but only those working on Ebola wards have enough protective gear. The general staff, meanwhile, are woefully under-resourced and at-risk. The popular perception is that if you go to the hospital, you will contract Ebola from the staff there. People are staying home, even if they need medical care. Yusuf Johnny, a staff member for OneVillage Partners, has seen the price of medicine in general rise drastically in the pharmacies as people self-diagnose and attempt to self-treat, while the price of chlorine (revered locally as the best cleaning product, ever) "has more than doubled."

The people's beliefs are not entirely unfounded. Over the weekend, in Freetown, the capital and largest city in Sierra Leone, Dr. Modupeh Cole, a lead doctor at Connaught Hospital, tested positive for Ebola. He was taken across the country to the isolation ward in Kailahun to receive treatment. Back at the hospital though, the nurses threatened to go on strike to draw attention to their dangerous situation.

On talk radio and social media, most Sierra Leonians support the nurses. Many are angry that resources seem to be going to the military and police to control the people, but not to the health workers trying to control the disease. A new isolation ward is under construction near the town of Hangha, 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) away from Kenema. People have been demanding on social media and through the advocacy of their Paramount Chief (a local government official in charge of a chieftancy, somewhat similar to a county in the U.S.), that the new isolation unit be finished soon. For residents of Kenema to feel safe enough to seek medical treatment during this difficult season, they need this new isolation unit now.

Chad McCordic is a Community Projects Manager with Minneapolis, Minnesota-based non-profit OneVillage Partners.