University at heart of Ebola battle badly hit by deaths

As life returns to normal in Sierra Leone following the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the country free of Ebola, it is emerging that one of its universities – which produces the bulk of the country’s health workers – has been badly hit by the loss of key staff.

Acting vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Sierra Leone, Ekundayo Thompson, told University World News in an email exchange that the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences – COMAHS – had lost 11 academic doctors. In addition, some students had fallen victim to the virulent hemorrhagic fever.

“COMAHS, our fledging health service capacity builder, was hardest hit.”

Founded in 1988, COMAHS was Sierra Leone’s first medical school. The 2005 University Act created two universities, and COMAHS became part of the University of Sierra Leone. It has faculties of nursing and pharmaceutical sciences and a pharmacy technical school, and produces the highly skilled health care workers the country desperately needs.

Wider impacts

Stating that the Ebola virus disease “laid bare the deficits in our human resource base”, Thompson said there had been plans to operationalise linkages with local and international partners, and these had been affected along with various programmes and policies.

It would be difficult replacing key staff. “Recruiting staff of the calibre lost through Ebola virus disease cannot be done overnight." He added: “Some had given at least 15 years of service at the very top.”

Also, “remuneration is not competitive which means attracting adequately and appropriately qualified faculty is a huge challenge”.

Following the reopening of the university, the academic year has been restructured to the extent that examinations for the 2014-15 academic year only commenced in mid-November – they should have been concluded in June.

Aside from the tragic loss of life of academics and students, Thompson said: “What is not mentioned is the financial setback that has resulted. Negotiations to finalise projects were aborted.”

Funding from government had been hampered by new priorities and emerging issues as a result of the Ebola epidemic and now in the post-Ebola scenario. “Partnerships and linkages, especially with international institutions, is a possible way forward.”

He was also hopeful that government would facilitate leveraging a newly established public-private partnership scheme.

Thompson was not able to ascertain yet the overall effect that the disease has had on the university because, he said, the academic year has been extended and “only a thorough audit would reveal additional dropouts and the results of Ebola virus disease.”

A definitive answer would emerge at the start of the next academic year, he added.

Status report

The World Health Organization announced on 7 November that Sierra Leone had entered a 90-day period of enhanced surveillance that will run until 5 February 2016. It will continue to support Sierra Leone during this period.

This new phase is critical for ensuring early detection of any possible new cases of Ebola.

The outbreak has decimated families, the health system, the economy and social structures. All need to recover. It has also left an estimated 4,000 survivors who have ongoing health problems and need medical care and social support.

Since the outbreak that devastated three West African countries began, up to 8 November 2015 more than 14,100 cases of Ebola virus disease had been reported in Sierra Leone, and 3,955 deaths. In Liberia there have been nearly 10,700 cases and 4,808 deaths, and in Guinea 3,800 cases and 2,536 deaths.

The worldwide totals on 8 November were 28,635 cases and 11,314 deaths.