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At a glance: Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, beating the drum against Ebola

By Indrias G. Kassaye

With the number of new Ebola cases in Sierra Leone dwindling but still dangerous, care centres for children are a vital measure for ensuring their protection and preventing further transmission.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, 30 July 2015 – The rhythmic sound of tam-tams fills the corridors at the UNICEF-supported Observational Interim Care Centre (OICC) in the Portee neighbourhood of Freetown, Sierra Leone, where children who may have been exposed to Ebola are kept in quarantine as a precaution. It is meal time, and Braima Bockarie, one of six resident caregivers, plays the drums to calm the children who have been separated from their families.

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Kassaye
Braima Bockarie (right), an Ebola survivor and caregiver working at the Observation Interim Care Center in Portee, plays drums to soothe infants separated from their parents as they undergo observation for Ebola symptoms for 21 days.

“The children that are here are not our biological children, so we entertain them so that they don’t feel they are in an alien environment,” says Braima.

Braima and all the caregivers at the OICC are Ebola survivors and therefore have immunity to the disease. Their immunity renders them uniquely capable of caring for the children without fear of either contracting or transmitting the disease.

The drumming works wonders. Fourteen-month-old Kadie*, who has been under observation for two days, stops crying and settles in the arms of Memunata Sesay, another caregiver at the OICC. As her wide eyes focus on the drums, Kadie begins eating the porridge Memunata has prepared using high-energy therapeutic food, supplied by UNICEF to OICCs like this one, which is operated by German NGO Cap Anamur.

“Kadie’s mother is suspected of having Ebola, and she has been taken to another treatment centre for confirmation,” says Memunata. “Children stay here for the incubation period, 21 days.”

Close supervision

The parents or caretakers of children who come to the centre are usually in treatment or observation for Ebola symptoms themselves. Separating them from their children removes the risk that they may transmit the virus to their children. The OICC approach, focussing entirely on children, also enables close supervision and monitoring, which is critical for their survival, as children are more vulnerable to Ebola.

“Whenever a child shows signs of Ebola, we call 117, and they will send an ambulance and take the children to the treatment centre for further tests,” says Memunata.

Two days earlier, the team at the OICC referred a 6-month-old baby who developed fever while in their care, for further tests. The tests confirmed the baby had Ebola, and she is now in an Ebola treatment centre.

Feeding complete, Memunata checks Kadie’s temperature. Kadie doesn’t have a fever, but her malaria test, conducted by Braima using a rapid diagnostic test kit provided to OICCS with UNICEF support, turns out positive. Malaria, endemic to Sierra Leone, is one of the leading causes of child mortality, and hence a major source of concern.

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Kassaye
Memunatu Sesay, an Ebola survivor and caregiver, feeds 14-month-old Kadie with porridge made from high-energy therapeutic food.

Kadie’s immunity and capacity to withstand malaria have already been compromised due to her malnutrition, and the possibility that she may also develop Ebola adds cause for alarm. Braima takes immediate action, informing the OICC nurse, who gives him anti-malarial drugs with instructions on how to administer them to an infant.

Surge in response

After several months of low numbers of new Ebola cases in Sierra Leone, suggesting the end of the crisis could be in sight, a spike in the number of new cases recorded in June prompted a government-led surge in Ebola response activities, in collaboration with partners including UNICEF.

UNICEF provides BP-100 therapeutic food and other nutrition supplies to Ebola-related facilities in all affected areas of Sierra Leone, and more than 4,000 cases that have gone through Ebola centres have been provided with nutrition supplies. Interventions to boost child survival rates also include provision of thermometers, malaria test kits and medications, as well as essential water, hygiene and sanitation provisions.

As of 30 July 2015, there have been 8,695 confirmed cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, of which 1,459 were children. The number of confirmed deaths from Ebola stands at 3,585.

UNICEF’s US$178 million appeal to respond to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, remains underfunded, with 121.7 million received to date, leaving a funding gap of $57.3 million.


*Name changed



UNICEF Photography: The end of Ebola begins at home


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