Swansea doctor relives experience on Ebola front line as vaccination against deadly virus continues

Public Health doctor Brendan Healy says programme could also save UK lives

An infectious diseases doctor is using his experience of tackling the world’s worst Ebola outbreak to prepare Welsh hospitals if ever a case of the deadly disease arrived in the country.

Public Health Wales clinician Brendan Healy travelled to Sierra Leone in January 2015 to help respond to the terrifying West Africa outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people between 2013 and 2016.

August 1 marked the first anniversary of the latest devastating outbreak in DR Congo, with the death toll at 1,750 and still rising. 

Dr Healy, whose from Swansea works with colleagues across the Health Service, in Public Health to prepare Welsh Hospitals including the city’s Morriston Hospital and Singleton Hospital to offer the Welsh public the best possible protection from Ebola and other infectious threats.

Dr Healy, who is 46, said:

“The risk of Ebola in Wales remains low, but in these days of international travel no-one can afford to be complacent, so we are always working to protect the public.

“Being part of the international response to the West Africa outbreak was of huge benefit to me and the NHS in Wales. The learning that you pick up from that type of experience and managing real cases is just invaluable.

“Being in that situation is not something you can learn here, and I feel much more competent managing suspect cases now as a result of having been out in Sierra Leone.”

Dr Healy, a consultant in microbiology and infectious diseases, believes a new vaccine, developed with support from the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) would be invaluable should an Ebola case arrive in this country.

Over 190,000 people have been vaccinated in DR Congo, dramatically curtailing the spread of the virus, and initial results suggest that the UK aid funded vaccine is 97 per cent effective.

Dr Healy said:

“We have learned a lot from helping with the West Africa and DR Congo outbreaks and vaccination in combination with adherence to infection prevention measures means that there is no reason why an Ebola epidemic should burn for any length of time. 

“One of the main problems with the Dr Congo outbreak is that it is in a war zone, which hampers the response efforts, but my understanding of the vaccination is that it has been very effective.”

Just over 40,000 front-line health workers have been vaccinated as they fight the disease in DR Congo.

The reassurance of a vaccine was not available when Dr Healy went out with King’s College London to treat Ebola patients at Connaught Hospital, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in January 2015.

British nurses Will Pooley and Pauline Cafferkey had to fight for their lives after becoming infected during the outbreak.

Dr Healy admitted: “It is concerning when you are out there that you might end up infected. I didn’t think too much about being infected though because I was concentrating more on being careful not to catch it.

“The process for removing the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is relatively complicated and so you are always anxious that you are going to make a mistake.

“Particularly at the beginning, that played on your mind a little bit, ‘Did I remove everything correctly?’.  But the risk tends to focus your mind and with practice it is possible to get very good at removing everything safely.

“You are working long hours and the conditions meant that you were tired and dehydrated when removing the PPE.  Your hands are all wrinkled after a shift as if you’ve been in a bath because they have been bathed in sweat inside your gloves. You wouldn’t have to switch off for very long to risk an exposure and that is why you are generally concerned about this part of the process.  A vaccine would add extra reassurance and make looking after patients a lot safer”

Dad-of-two Dr Healy admits going to Sierra Leone did spark concerns for his family.

He said:

“I’d worked in Africa previously and once I saw there was a need for something I was trained for, the decision wasn’t very difficult. My feeling was I should go.

“My wife was reluctant at first but amazingly changed her mind and supported me in the decision saying, ‘Look, if you think you should go, you should go’.

“Before I went, lots of people said ‘You must be very brave. It must be very scary?’ and actually neither of those things were true for me… until actually the day of my flight.

“I can remember waiting to get on the plane to Sierra Leone and just thinking if I go and I help, it’ll have been a great thing to do, but if I die, it will be potentially a bit irresponsible because I leave two children without a dad.

“Of course, I’d spoken to my kids, who were 14 and 12 at the time, before I went. Initially they didn’t want me to go but then they said that I should go because “what if that was happening to us, we’d want somebody to help.  That would be amazing.  And anyway, if you die, at least you will die doing something good’.  That response really stuck in my mind and it was great to have their support and see them thinking in that way.”

Mr Healey almost set a world record for running a marathon wearing a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)  suit when he returned to the UK – and was only thwarted on a technicality.

He said:

“People might think ‘You went out there and must be really proud’.  I am proud of my contribution but my contribution was very small compared to many and some people for whom I have absolute admiration contributed so much.  But, in my experience, many volunteers come back and think ‘I didn’t do enough’.

“That’s certainly how I felt. I wanted to do more.  When I learnt of the opportunity to run the London Marathon to raise money for King’s College I jumped at the chance.

“The intention had been to take the PPE off, but I felt comfortable, and so managed to run the whole thing in the suit. I did it in 3hrs 49 minutes, so just for fun, I thought I’d apply for a Guinness World Record after seeing someone had actually done it before in a PPE and my time was better.  I didn’t qualify though because I hadn’t registered beforehand and hadn’t worn a visor.”

The UK Government has been at the forefront of the international aid response to the DR Congo outbreak and is calling for other countries to do more.

International Development Secretary Alok Sharma said: “Ebola has already taken far too many lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Shockingly, it has wiped out entire families and, a year after this outbreak started, it is showing no sign of slowing down.

“The UK has led the way in tackling this killer disease and we can be proud of our support to create a life-saving Ebola vaccine which has inoculated 180,000 people so far.

“Diseases like Ebola have no respect for borders. This could be spread beyond DRC. It is essential the rest of the international community steps up to help. If we don’t act now, many thousands more lives could be lost.”

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