Ebola: Dr Kathryn Stinson’s experiences from the frontline

By January 21, 2015Infections

“As South Africans, we shouldn’t be fearing Ebola, but looking more closely at resolving our own diseases of poverty: TB and MDR-TB and HIV.” – Dr Kathryn Stinson Hand Economic.

The Ebola outbreak has affected and shocked the world – tens of thousands have been infected by the highly contagious disease and many will die due to the lack of resources on the ground. Many people have eve fled to avoid infection – it’s a truly chaotic and dangerous situation.

However, none of this was going to sway Dr Kathryn Stinson, an esteemed epidemiologist working at the University of Cape Town (UCT), from heading to Sierra Leone – the centre of the epidemic – to use her exceptional skills to help better understand, document and make sure everyone was made aware of the crisis.

On her return to Cape Town, South Africa, we were privileged to catch up with Dr Stinson to get a first-hand account of her experiences from the frontline. This is her story – uncut, real and powerful!

What prompted you to say: “I need to go to Sierra Leone?” to help and study the Ebola crisis?

I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist, specialising in HIV and TB cohort epidemiology and health systems in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
I work for the University of Cape Town and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and I had been following the MSF news feeds and field blogs on the Ebola epidemic since May, [2014.]

It was increasingly clear that there were not enough resources on the ground to contain the epidemic, and that it was spreading fast, given the weak health system. Seeing parallels in my own experience of working in health system strengthening and HIV, I could not resist the opportunity to apply for a call by MSF for epidemiologists to provide technical support in Kailahun, Sierra Leone.

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I saw this as an opportunity to make a difference in real terms, to use my skills and to learn. How could I call myself an infectious disease epidemiologist without putting my money where my mouth was?

Were you afraid of the real risk that you may catch the virus? What specific precautions did you take?

My tasks as an epidemiologist included collecting and analysing patient data from the Ebola treatment centre and sending off summary statistics to stakeholders, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the District Ministry of Health, every day.

In spite of the fear of contagion being somewhat irrational, it was a natural reaction to a stressful environment and it kept us conscious of the context. I kept on reminding myself of the scientific evidence.

Look out for next week’s post, which will discuss Dr Stinson’s findings and her predictions for the future, specifically from a South African perspective.