Dhaka, Bangladesh
Racing to stop disease

Off the track

Racing to stop disease

Tulip Mazumdar

As families desperately clawed through red earth and debris that had buried their communities within just a few hours, another fear was already taking hold. Gushing muddy waters had poured into poor communities, killing at least 500 people, leaving many more homeless and wrecking what were already very basic water and sanitation systems. Although tragedy has already struck, things could get a lot worse. “The floods and landslides have caused damage to water and sanitation systems in affected areas thus resulting in contamination of open water sources, and also created possible breeding sites for vectors like mosquitoes,” World Health Organization Sierra Leone officer in charge, Dr Alexander Chimbaru, said. Large displaced populations, limited clean water supplies and no or unhygienic places to go to the toilet, all create the perfect conditions for deadly diseases to spread fast. Within four days of the disaster, the Sierra Leonean government had called on the new UK Public Health Rapid Support Team (UK-PHRST) to deploy to Freetown and help them prevent a major outbreak of disease. The team is made up of top experts, who commit to jumping on a plane within hours of a disaster anywhere in the world. It was created in response to the world’s tardy reaction to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Little did the team know that one of its first deployments would be back to one of the worst Ebola-hit countries. “We got the call on 18 August, and I was on a plane within three days,” said epidemiologist Maria Saavedra-Campos. “It’s unfortunate we need to come back again in these circumstances. But it’s clear how resilient Sierra Leoneans are.” The UK team consists of: —two epidemiologists, who track diseases —two microbiologists, who can diagnose the cause of outbreaks —a logistician to coordinate the nuts and bolts of the project Their job - in short - is to help local governments stop major outbreaks before they start. “We are part of an additional level of surveillance of disease that the government put in place after this disaster struck. We do active case finding” said Ms Saavedra-Campos. “We are looking for what we call ‘epidemic prone’ diseases, such as cholera, measles, malaria and typhoid.” Every day, the team goes into community health centres in and around the worst affected areas and helps local health workers to build the systems needed to gather detailed information about illnesses in local areas.

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