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Why we joined the fight

Aid workers Dr Melissa McRae and Bob Handby report on the fight to get Ebola under control in Sierra Leone.

"Where I was working in Sierra Leone it was around 50 per cent."

Dr Melissa McRae has never worked anywhere with a death rate that high. Not in her years as a medical practitioner in Australia, nor even in a humanitarian mission to South Sudan in the midst of an armed conflict.

The harsh reality of the Ebola epidemic shocks everyone working in its midst: from local volunteers and healthcare staff to international aid workers.

"It's the first time I've ever walked in every morning and looked at the board to think, 'Gosh how many people did we lose overnight?' It was awful," Dr McRae recalls.

It hasn't deterred her from returning to Sierra Leone, though. Having already spent two months treating Ebola patients at a Red Cross centre in Kenema, the Melbourne-based doctor will now head up another treatment centre in Kono.

The Kono centre was established to support Ebola patients who were previously forced to make the four-hour journey to Kenema. Australian water and sanitation expert Bob Handby played a key role in setting up the new centre.

A Red Cross aid worker for 30 years, Bob came out of retirement to join the fight against Ebola. He recalls how desperate the situation was at Kono General Hospital when he arrived with Sierra Leone Red Cross.

"Eight or nine of the nurses had died of Ebola and the majority of the remaining staff had left the hospital for fear. There was a couple of doctors and one matron but the hospital had no cleaners so it was filthy and basically had no water supply, and Ebola patients were mixed up with general patients."

Their first priority was to establish a triage and Ebola holding area in the hospital grounds. At the same time, they set about building the Red Cross treatment centre on nearby land.

As Bob reports, an Ebola treatment centre needs three distinctly different areas to accommodate suspected, probable and confirmed cases. This means three sets of showers, three sets of toilets, and even three different strengths of chlorine in the water supply.

"You also need a laundry because you're washing so much clothing, rubber boots have got to be disinfected, gloves disinfected…so access to a good reliable water supply is very important."

A lack of education around how Ebola is transmitted, including the importance of safe burials, led to Kono becoming another Ebola hotspot.

"We had the sad case of an unsafe burial of a taxi driver; and from that one burial there were 28 confirmed cases of Ebola," Bob explains.

In areas with little access to television and radio, face-to-face, door-to-door education is the only way to get the message out. More than 6,000 Red Cross volunteers are doing this work, in addition to following up people who have had contact with Ebola patients and, of course, burying as many victims as possible, safely and with dignity.

It's these volunteers, from the communities hit hardest by Ebola, that inspire Australian aid workers to continue their work.

"You know it's not over yet," Dr McRae says, when asked why she was returning to Sierra Leone. 'It's died out in the media, it's not as exciting as other world events going on; but it's still happening and people are dying and I've got some skills that can be used."

Follow the Red Cross response to the world's worst Ebola outbreak.

Photos: Tommy Trenchard; courtesy Bob Handby.

Thank you

Australian Red Cross has now closed the Ebola Outbreak 2014 Appeal.

Thanks to the generosity of the Australian community, we raised $1.2 million to provide humanitarian assistance to communities affected by the spread of the Ebola virus disease.

If you have raised funds for the Ebola Outbreak 2014 Appeal that have not yet been banked, please call us on 1800 811 700.