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Freetown: “Conditions for cholera were rife”

Freetown: “Conditions for cholera were rife”

In August, GOAL teams in Sierra Leone responded to a devastating mudslide and flooding in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that killed more than 500 people and affected thousands more. GOAL’s Senior Humanitarian Advisor, Janette Macleod, explains some of the activities GOAL carried out to help those caught up in the disaster.

It very soon became clear that there was a pressing need to prevent an outbreak of cholera. Cholera is a disease that occurs regularly in Sierra Leone, particularly in the rainy season, and can spread quickly if it is not contained.

“Like most of us, I awoke on the morning of Monday, August 14th, to news of the flooding and devastating landslide in Freetown. With GOAL staff in Freetown already mobilising a response, it was my job – as a member of GOAL’s Humanitarian Unit - to assist remotely and help assess what kind of response was required.

“I arrived in Sierra Leone a few days later and helped manage our response programme. Some of our initial work included providing tents to the main mortuary. The mortuary was overwhelmed with bodies and body parts and the government staff worked long hours, treating every corpse with dignity, while managing the desperate searches by people for loved ones.

“Those who had lost their home in the mud slide were taking shelter in crowded temporary shelters, including schools, tents and unfinished buildings. With the unsanitary conditions and water supplies damaged or contaminated, the conditions for a possible cholera outbreak were rife.

“It very soon became clear that there was a pressing need to prevent an outbreak of this deadly disease. Cholera occurs regularly in Sierra Leone, particularly in the rainy season, and can spread quickly if it is not contained. The last outbreak took hold in 2012-13, killing hundreds and infecting over 20,000.

“After our work around the Ebola epidemic in recent years, GOAL staff used all the skills and experience they gained from that response to reduce the risk of another disease outbreak.

“Working with the Ministry of Health, we prioritised eight clinics for emergency support. These clinics would be critical to providing care to those affected by the mudslide and to any response to a disease outbreak. The works we have since completed included building incinerators, installing sinks, providing water pumps, repairing gutters used for rain water harvesting and emptying flooded waste disposal pits.

“We also worked closely with the team at Connaught Hospital, the largest hospital in Freetown – and which would be at the centre of a response to any disease outbreak – to improve their cholera preparedness. This included emptying the hospital septic tanks which were overflowing, building new drainage channels and repairing the generators which power the hospital.

“Other work included raising awareness of the threat of cholera amongst communities living in some of Freetown’s informal settlements, and providing information around helping to prevent an outbreak.

“GOAL also worked with the Ministry of Social Welfare to provide psychological first aid training to staff travelling out to the areas that had been destroyed by the landslides. These staff were to register people who had been affected by the landslides, and the training helped them manage the registration process as sensitively as possible. Later, we provided support to the first responders, who had been directly involved in the search and rescue effort, and in the management of body identification at the city morgue.

“Now, more than six weeks after the disaster, the Government of Sierra Leone has lowered the security level, which indicates we are moving in to a recovery phase. The communities who have been affected continue to receive support from GOAL and we are refocusing on our longer-term programming for communities across Sierra Leone whilst ensuring those affected by the disaster are not left behind.

“Although it’s time to fly home, I hope to return to the beautiful beaches of Sierra Leone soon. It has been an extraordinary few weeks working with the team here and I know that GOAL will continue to make a real difference to the lives of some of the country’s most vulnerable people.”

- Janette Macleod, GOAL Senior Humanitarian Advisor

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