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Answering the call to fight Ebola

Red Cross aid worker Bob Handby came out of retirement to help stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

Tuesday January 20, 2015

Bob Handby tells the TODAY show why he came out of retirement to tackle Ebola in West Africa.

Aid worker Bob Handby is a true legend of Australian Red Cross.  

After 31 years of life-saving water and sanitation aid work in crisis hotspots around the world, he came out of retirement over the Christmas break to join the effort to tackle Ebola.  

Bob Handby was interviewed by Channel 9's TODAY show upon his return from West Africa this week, explaining why he decided to answer the call one more time.  

Partial Transcript:  

Reporter: Bob Handby has over 30 years experience as an aid worker and he's been involved in more than 50 foreign assignments.  In December last year after being hand-picked by Red Cross, Bob came out of retirement to help in the fight against the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  We spoke to Bob before he left.  

Bob Handby: The images I've seen on TV of children being separated from their parents, not having access to proper treatment and transport, as soon as I see children being affected I guess I'm a bit of a softy in that regard, and that motivates me very often to become involved.  

Reporter:  He certainly is a trooper.  He's back in the country and he joins us this morning.  Good Morning Bob.  

Bob Handby:  Good Morning.  

Reporter:  Ebola is an outbreak on a devastating scale.  There have been 8,000 people killed so far.  Tell us what the conditions were like.  You were in the Red Cross hospital in Sierra Leone?  

Bob Handby:  Yes I initially went to the Ebola treatment centre in a place called Kenama where the Red Cross had been operating for about six months.  I only spent a few days there, that's where I expected to spend my time, but there had been a severe outbreak in a place called Kono, and I was asked to lead a team into Kono to see what the Red Cross response should be there.  

Reporter:  So what was it like?  You've worked in some highly dangerous places like Rwanda,  Uganda and Iraq.  How did it compare?  

Bob Handby:  It was very different.  I felt quite comfortable from a safety point of view. It was in my own control as to the chances of catching Ebola myself, where as some of the war zones I've been in before, where there have been landmines and shelling, it wasn't in my control.  So from a safety point of view I wasn't overly concerned about it.  Having said that, I wasn't naïve not to realise it was a dangerous situation and I took all the necessary precautions.  

Reporter:  And so much loss of life, families torn apart, children orphaned.  How did you cope with the tragedy around you?  

Bob Handby:  It's very sad.  One of the differences between this disaster and some of the others I've been to, previously I've been to ones where people have been dead before I arrived.  But here you see the families come in to the treatment centre, Mum and Dad and a couple of children, and the toughest part was seeing those families having to be separated because Mum and Dad and one of the children might be positive for Ebola and one of them not.  The one that was negative had to be taken away from the parents for its own protection, obviously not understanding the reasons why.   

It's a bit like Australian children, you take a child away from its parents and they yell out for Mum and Dad, particularly when it's being done by people dressed in full personal protection, it would have been very scary for them without having to be separated.  So you'd follow the families through.  Sometimes they'd come in looking reasonably healthy then after a week or a few days some of them were being buried.  It's very sad.  

You can watch a video of the full interview on the TODAY show website.  

Please help Red Cross fight Ebola by donating to the Ebola Outbreak Appeal.