Above: Jenny Stedmon and colleague Antonio prepare scrubs.
"This is the worst humanitarian crisis I've seen."
Despite having completed several emergency relief assignments with Red Cross, Dr Jenny Stedmon is blunt in her assessment of the Ebola outbreak now ravaging West Africa.
Just back from a two-month stint in Sierra Leone, Jenny was one of several international aid workers working at a Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in the town of Kenema. The country's health system, as with neighbouring Liberia, is on the verge of collapse as Ebola cases draw attention and resources away from other critical health needs.
"The need there is overwhelming," Jenny said at a media conference in Brisbane. "But we simply don't have the resources to control it. The international community really needs to take some notice of this, and offer help."
Jenny admits to being "pretty nervous" the first time she treated an Ebola patient, despite wearing full personal protective equipment including a moisture proof suit, face mask and goggles. "But you're well protected. All the resources have been put there to make sure that you're safe. I felt that everything had been done to make it possible to treat the patients."
Working in a highly contagious environment takes its toll on both the health workers in the treatment centre and the local Red Cross volunteers assigned to bring in the sick and bury the dead.
"Imagine trying a few days in Australia without shaking hands, touching someone, sharing a cup with your husband avoiding any contact with skin and washing your hands in chlorine 40 times a day and you would get the smallest essence of being here in the middle of this crisis," Jenny explains.
Yet there are signs of hope. The Kenema centre's first Ebola survivors are starting to emerge, including 11-year-old Kalie, who was joyfully reunited with her mother. This has made a major difference to community morale, and the Red Cross teams have been welcomed and appreciated, despite their strange appearance ("To see someone coming in with all this protective equipment that makes them look like a spaceman, it's pretty scary.") But Jenny reiterates that there is a long way to go.
"There is no treatment for Ebola - we don't have a drug or a vaccine yet, but I believe that's on the way. People are working very hard."
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4 October 2014
Photos: IFRC/Katherine Mueller