We could have saved more lives: Canberra doctor Kamalini Lokuge on fighting Ebola

25 March 2016

When a nine-year-old boy who had just buried his family arrived at an Ebola treatment centre, a Canberra doctor was struck by his resemblance to her nephew.

After watching the infectious disease steal his loved ones, he was kept in a holding room for days with no food; the Sierra Leone community was afraid he'd infect anyone who came near.

The sick, frail and starved boy was placed in an ambulance with other red-eyed patients. He endured a 10-hour trip in 35-degree heat with closed windows, during which another life was taken before his eyes.

Despite years of researching Ebola and seeing it deteriorate many bodies and minds, Dr Kamalini Lokuge was particularly touched by this child's story.

He died two days after telling it.

"That boy was one of thousands of unnecessary deaths," she said.

"I feel like if we had done the job properly in Guinea [when the outbreak started], it never would have gotten to the point that it did.

"There were delays in our government officially supporting people to go and I think really that's what would have made the difference, what would have saved many more lives."

The senior research fellow at the ANU was part of an international team in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak that ended in Sierra Leone in November 2015 and resulted in more that 11,000 deaths.

She visited Guinea in April and Sierra Leone in September 2014 through Doctors Without Borders to care for patients and help limit the disease's spread.

Dr Lokuge recently undertook research that found the outbreak could have been stopped far earlier if there weren't delays in enough staff working on the ground to educate communities, give proper patient care and ensure safe burial practices.

Throughout two decades of studying and fighting Ebola, delays had brought her to tears.

She had worked in more than 10 war-torn and disadvantaged countries, but the inability to touch a child sick with Ebola, coupled with a lack of support, was uniquely challenging.

"It's one of the times where you can't even touch a child without protective equipment.

"It's really sad to see sick children and not be able to give them a proper human touch."

Photo by Graham Tidy. Article by Clare Sibthorpe.

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