Last Updated: 13th August 2019

Taking a role in fighting Ebola

Johnathan Taylor, Microbiology trainee, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire shared his elective experience in Sierra Leone during the Ebola breakout.

Why did you choose Sierra Leone as an elective rotation?

I volunteered to be deployed to West Africa to assist in the UK’s ongoing efforts to combat the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease in the region. I was assigned to Makeni, Sierra Leone by Public Health England (PHE) who co-ordinated the training and deployment of volunteers, in tandem with the non-governmental organisation International Medical Corps (IMC). Since the duration of my deployment was five weeks, I thought it eminently suitable to use the experience as my elective placement.

What research did you do before you went?

I did not have to carry out a great deal of research before my deployment, as the vast majority of the arrangements for my deployment were handled by PHE and IMC. I did, however, carry out research into the history of the outbreak and how things were progressing immediately prior to my deployment to get an idea of the situation in country.

What did you and your employer need to put in place in order for you to go?

It was a huge help that my training officer had also volunteered and been to the same location for her deployment in November 2014. She was able to provide me with a huge amount of advice and support before I left. She also helped me re-schedule my first-year rotations and provided backing for me to defer aspects of my taught master’s that was scheduled for when I was deployed.

In addition, many serious infectious diseases such as hepatitis, meningitis, cholera and yellow fever are endemic in the region. For this reason, I was required to receive a host of additional immunisations before traveling to Sierra Leone. My employer was extremely helpful in pointing me in the right direction as to where to go to get the vaccinations.

How did you finance the trip?

My deployment was entirely funded by the Department for International Development as part of the UK Ebola response. My recruitment as a volunteer and provision of training was co-ordinated by PHE, whilst IMC organised all travel, accommodation, and care of volunteers in country.

What did you learn?

I learnt an enormous amount during my elective placement. One of the major things I learnt was how to safely handle and process patient samples that potentially contained high levels of a hazard group IV pathogen in the relatively austere conditions of an Ebola field hospital laboratory. PHE developed techniques for sample processing adapted from similar techniques used in the field by the European Mobile Lab, involving the use of multiple stages of decontamination with sodium hypochlorite and inactivation of viable virus within a flexible film isolator.

I also learnt that even in a challenging, resource poor setting, it is still possible to deliver a high quality laboratory service. This was especially important as when dealing with a virus as deadly as Ebola, ensuring the right result is given for the right patient can literally be a matter of life and death.

How will your experience help you as a clinical scientist?

Having entered the STP from a non-healthcare background, this experience was, for me, a timely reminder of the importance of the patient’s experience. Too often people can become desensitised to the fact there is a person on the end of a lab request, who may be extremely worried or frightened, as many people were in the treatment centre. Remaining mindful of this motivates me as a clinical scientist to continue working to the highest standards of scientific and clinical excellence to ensure the best possible outcome for patients.

This experience was also a profoundly humbling one, and engendered a new appreciation within me for our National Health Service. I was reminded how uniquely privileged we are to have such a precious resource, compared to the situation in Sierra Leone where many people have limited access to healthcare. As a clinical scientist I hope to be able to use my position to drive further improvement and innovation in the NHS, and contribute to its position as a world-leading healthcare provider.