From overflowing morgues to corpses being pushed around in wheelbarrows, a British aid worker today reveals the horror she has seen battling to tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa .
Sanitation expert Cokie van der Velde, 54, spent last week helping with charity Medecins Sans Frontieres at a treatment centre in Liberian capital Monrovia and a hospital isolation ward three hours away.
And the grandmother revealed that six of the nurses she worked with have died from the virus.
Yesterday Cokie, of Whixley, North Yorkshire, said: “It is heartbreaking to see such brave people perishing at the hands of this awful disease.”
The recent outbreak, the largest recorded in history, began in Guinea and spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, killing more than 700 people.
The World Health Organisation said that 60 medics had so far died in West Africa, falling ill as they bravely battled to save other people.
It’s 5.30am and I’m the first out of bed. It’s a half-hour drive to the Ebola treatment centre. I arrive at 7.30am and change into scrubs and rubber boots in the “low-risk zone”.
I need to put on full protective gear. I pull on a pair of examination gloves, and then a yellow suit. It goes up to my neck and down to my ankles. Already I’m starting to sweat.
It’s very humid and hot. Next is the mask, the hood, and then an enormous plastic apron. I fumble with surgical gloves, then thick rubber household gloves. Finally I put on my goggles.
Before I go in the high-risk zone, a staff member checks to make sure not one millimetre of skin is showing.
I start by emptying buckets of faeces and vomit. Some people have terrible diarrhoea or are bleeding, so there’s a lot of cleaning. I make sure they all have water – most are so weak, they can’t even unscrew the lid of a plastic bottle; some can barely speak.
Soiled sheets go in bins, which are taken to the burning pits – once a day we burn the waste. Every day there are dead bodies, every day the number is increasing. When somebody dies, we put their belongings in bags and burn them, with the mattress cover and sheet.
I am training some new staff, locals who will work as hygienists and cleaners.
I listen to a radio phone-in. Someone calls in to say there’s no such thing as Ebola. This is the first time the disease has broken out in West Africa, there’s a lot of fear and misinformation. We go through all the rumours and dispel them.
Then I explain what Ebola is and how you can protect yourself.
I’m heading out of Monrovia to visit the main hospital in Bong County. It’s a three-hour trip.
When the outbreak started local health workers weren’t taking proper precautions. It spread through the hospital staff. Seven nurses from this hospital have been admitted to the centre in Monrovia; six are dead.
I meet the head of the health team. He’s doing his best in very difficult circumstances, with terrified staff.
They have only one ambulance. The burial team has to use a wheelbarrow, or garbage collecting truck, to move corpses around.
Local religious leaders are preaching against health workers, saying it is them spreading the disease. They’ve set up a small isolation unit, but there’s nobody to staff it. It’s an impossible situation.
I feel we’ve reached a tipping point. When I arrived in Liberia four weeks ago, there were four or five patients in the treatment centre. Now the centre is overflowing, we don’t know where to put people, the morgue is full, people are turning up with sick relatives.
I wake with a sore throat – it’s almost certainly due to chlorine, but paranoia has set in and I take my temperature for the tenth time this morning.
At night, sleeping can be hard. You lie there thinking, I feel hot, am I getting a fever? If I catch Ebola, who will I get to tell my family?