Ebola diaries

Exciting news everyone! Lauren Cowley is currently in Sierra Leone, being a Time Person of the Year, but she has still found time to write a blog post on her experiences – see below:


I have been in Port Loko, Sierra Leone for 2 and a half weeks now. I’m working in the diagnostic lab here that has been set up by Public Health England to diagnose Ebola from submitted samples of blood, swab or urines. We have been up and running for  5 days now after a week and a half spent setting up the lab and coping with all kinds of logistical f ups. Since opening we have processed a large number of samples from the community around Port Loko taken by brave healthcare workers who go out into the community. We are attached to an Ebola treatment centre run by an Irish NGO that has not opened yet. Once this is up and running we will receive samples from them too.

We are a team of 10 and I’m happy to be surrounded by 9 fantastic scientists all from various branches of Public Health England. The first week and a half of lugging boxes around in the 30 degree heat was pretty good team building so we were able to hit the ground running when the lab opened. We are very lucky to be staying in an excellently run humanitarian aid workers camp run by DEMA (the Danish Emergency Management Association). When we were first told we would be camping I was a little anxious about what state of facilities we would have but true to Scandinavian form the camp is impeccably organised and run. The food is delicious, the showers are hot and the tents are air conditioned. The one down side is the toilet block is still being built to impeccable scandinavian standards so at the moment we are suffering an interesting toilet and bagging situation… don’t ask. All part of the experience!

As you can imagine the country as a whole is in complete crisis and a lot of blame is being thrown about regarding the handling of the outbreak. Sadly, I am quite disappointed in what appears to be a complete lack of organisation between the NGOs, international government agencies and national government agencies. It makes the difficult tasks needing to be performed here even harder to achieve because nothing is logistically managed, communicated or thought through seemingly. Understandably the situation is very difficult to manage but nonetheless wastes of resources, energies and time are frustrating. This is probably something that commonly happens during massive humanitarian crisis’ but having witnessed it first hand for the first time, its difficult to not be frustrated. 

The experience has been supremely challenging so far but I am so happy to be in the lab and actually performing the assays that we came out here to do. It is really sad when you see the names of entire families written on sample tubes and very young patients. But something that is quite encouraging is when we can do a Malaria test and attribute the very similar symptoms to what an ebola patient shows to Malaria instead when the patient is Ebola negative. This answers the questions of the healthcare workers on symptoms and gives them the opportunity to treat them for Malaria.

The lab work is time consuming as we need to perform it to a very high safety standard so use flexible film isolators when working with the live samples, they are are not removed from the isolators until they have been inactivated. Twice to be sure. We then perform a diagnostic RT-PCR on the RNA extractions. Its really fun for me to be in the lab so much as most of what I do back home is bioinformatics (some of you reading this bioinformatics blog may be extremely confused as to why I’m banging on about a diagnostic lab). My bioinformatics alter ego keeps wanting to get these samples on a sequencer… so who wants to lend me a minion??

Anyway I’ve got 2 more weeks to process as many samples as possible and get results to as many exposed people as possible and then I will be flying off home on xmas eve to arrive back in the uk at 10 am on xmas day. Happy xmas to me :)!

One thought on “Ebola diaries

  1. Pingback: Sequencing Ebola in the field: a tale of nanopores, mosquitos and whatsapp | Bits and Bugs

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