Celebrating Those on the Front Lines of the Ebola Outbreak This Fourth of July

Along with her colleagues at Sabeti Lab, computational biologist Pardis Sabeti studies genetics and infectious diseases, working to improve our knowledge and implementation of medical care worldwide. She has recently been fighting, alongside a coalition of experts, against Ebola outbreaks in Western Africa.

It is the Fourth of July, and Stephen Gire and Nathan Yozwiak from my team are observing America’s holiday in Sierra Leone, bringing supplies and aid to our partners fighting the spread of Ebola virus in their country (as seen in image one). My thoughts are with them, with the patients and their families, and with all of the individuals on the front line of this battle against one of the most dangerous pathogens humanity has ever seen.

Despite so much press coverage on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, little has been told of the extraordinary bravery, sacrifice and of the truly outstanding work of the men and women fighting this deadly disease. This is as brilliant, dedicated, and prepared a team as you will find anywhere on the planet. And while they do need our help and resources as global partners fighting a virus that is “out of control”, they also deserve our praise for their outstanding and heroic effort.

Over our blogs to come we hope to tell their stories. To begin, I want to highlight just a few institutions and individuals:

  • The Kenema Government Hospital (KGH) in Sierra Leone, one of the only centers in the world that has diagnosis and treatment on-site for biosafety level 4 (BL-4) viruses. The team there has been combating another devastating BL-4 disease, Lassa fever, for the last 40 years, beginning well before the Civil War. They have developed clinical and high-tech research facilities and practices to diagnose, treat, and research BL-4 agents (image two).
  • Members of our team from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and the US, who all jumped into action when the outbreak of Ebola was first reported in West Africa, setting up diagnostic capacity on-site, well before the outbreak reached Sierra Leone.
  • Augustine Goba and the diagnostic team at KGH. Augustine, a native Sierra Leonean and brilliant scientist, diagnosed the first case of Ebola in Sierra Leone on May 25 (image three) using an assay designed by Dr. Kristian Andersen on our team (used alongside standard-of-care assays) allowing scientists at KGH to catch the outbreak at its inception. Members of Augustine’s team, working in partnership with the WHO, USAMRIID, and Metabiota, have diagnosed 211 Ebola cases in Sierra Leone and tested hundreds more.
  • Lansanna Kanneh and the exceptional outreach team that led the immediate response. There is no better outreach team in the world, and I have witnessed firsthand how they masterfully engage villages throughout the country and educate the populations about Lassa virus and ways to combat its spread (image four). They are working now to reach individuals throughout Sierra Leone to educate them about the devastating new Ebola virus in their country.
  • The people of Sierra Leone. While great praise should be given to the outreach team, the people they are working with deserve praise, too. Their level of engagement in outreach efforts is unlike anything I have seen in the United States. They are amazing and warm, and deeply interested in learning (image five). I had the great fortune of being welcomed into these villages where I shared a tent with the brilliant ecologist Dr. Lina Moses (image six); Lina has been working in Sierra Leone for many years and has been on-site to support efforts since the epidemic broke.
  • Dr. Humarr Kahn and the clinical team at KGH. These fearless and tireless individuals have been working around the clock since May 25, converting spaces to house about 50 Ebola patients at a time, and risking their own lives at every stage to help others.
  • The Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation and government leadership, which has shown exceptional support at every stage. I am personally grateful to Professor Sahr Gevao and Dr. Brima Kargbo, who supported our efforts in-country and abroad. Thanks to their leadership we were able to rapidly sequence the virus from the first 14 Ebola cases and 35 suspected cases at high depth and have already made this available to the global community. The longest part of this process was sending the samples to the US, and with the support of the National Institute of Health and World Bank, and the leadership of Dr. Christian Happi of Nigeria, we will be soon shifting this effort to West Africa.

There are many more heroes that can be named here, but we hope to share their stories with all of you soon.

Image One—Nathan Yozwiak and Stephen Gire with trunks packed in preparation for their trip to Sierra Leone.
Image one—Nathan Yozwiak and Stephen Gire with trunks packed in preparation for their trip to Sierra Leone.
Image two—The high-tech research lab at Kenema Government Hospital where they have been routinely diagnosing and characterizing another biosafety level 4 virus, Lassa virus, and are now diagnosing Ebola.
Image three—Augustine Goba, director of the Kenema Government Hospital diagnostic lab, in the process of performing the Ebola diagnostic test.
Image four—Lansanneh Kanneh of the outreach team leading an educational talk on Lassa fever in a village in Sierra Leone.
Image five—The amazingly warm and friendly people of Sierra Leone, who welcome the outreach team and us into their villages for outreach and education on these devastating viruses.
Image six—Lina Moses and I in a tent, staying overnight in a village in Sierra Leone with the outreach team.

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