West Africa: Ebola virus claims humanitarian hero's life

22 August, 2014
July 2014, Kailahun district, Sierra Leone: Red Cross volunteers prepare to handle the bodies of people killed by Ebola. Credit: IFRC/Kathy Mueller
July 2014, Kailahun district, Sierra Leone: Red Cross volunteers prepare to handle the bodies of people killed by Ebola. Credit: IFRC/Kathy Mueller

Almost 2,000 people have been infected and more than 1,000 killed in an Ebola outbreak that has terrorized communities across four West African countries. The deadly illness has also taken a very heavy toll on health workers and humanitarian staff responding to the growing crisis.

The virus has infected 170 health workers across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, and killed 81, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Among them was Sierra Leone's top virologist, Dr Sheikh Umar Khan, who died on 29 July having spent two months at the front line of the Government’s response in the eastern town of Kenema.

“He died because he loved his people”

Dr Khan had built a reputation for himself as an expert in viral haemorrhagic fevers, in a country where few doctors had experience in this field. Since 2005 he had been the Physician in charge of Kenema Government Hospital's Lassa Fever program, for some of that time doubling as a United Nations consultant on Lassa Fever.

Michael Vandi, a Public Health Officer at the hospital, knew Khan well. "He was a dedicated worker" said Vandi. "He loved his job because he loved his people. He died because he loved his people".

Vandi described the 39 year old doctor as a social man. "He was approachable by all. Always respectful."

“A hero for all of Africa”

Khan, who hailed from the northern Port Loko district of Sierra Leone, tested positive for Ebola on 22 July and was immediately sent to an Ebola treatment centre run by the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)  in the far eastern district of Kailahun.

Initial reports suggested his condition was improving and there were plans to evacuate him for further treatment in Europe. But his health deteriorated rapidly.

It is unclear how he contracted the disease. According to MSF staff and health workers at the hospital, he took meticulous care to avoid infection. But still, the threat of infection was high.

Many in Kenema describe Khan as a hero. "That man is not just a hero for Sierra Leone" said one motorbike taxi driver sipping sweet tea in a Kenema teashop. "He is a hero for all of Africa." At the hospital he is revered. Since his death, banners depicting his portrait and "RIP doctor Khan" have been strung up throughout the compound.

Ebola is real

Khan's death may prove to have some positive effect. For many, seeing the country's leading virus doctor succumb to Ebola has forced them to accept the virus was real. During the early stages of the outbreak the denial of Ebola's existence made it harder to contain the outbreak.

But Khan's death was the turning point for many, including the man in the Kenema teashop. "Before, we did not believe Ebola was there," he said. "But after Dr. Khan died now everybody knows it is real."

World Humanitarian Day

This week, the world marked World Humanitarian Day – a day when aid organizations celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world.

This year, the day paid tribute to those who are committed to making a difference by selflessly dedicating their lives to saving others. The 2014 campaign focused on the stories of individual aid workers, like Dr Khan, celebrated as "Humanitarian Heroes".

At a time when more people than ever need urgent humanitarian help worldwide, record numbers of aid workers have been kidnapped, wounded or killed as they carry out their life- saving work.

“Despite the risks they face to their safety and their health, aid workers from around the world remain undeterred,” said Louis Belanger, World Humanitarian Day Spokesperson. “This year, we want to celebrate and honour them.”

Read the exemplary stories of more than 300 humanitarian heroes.

Read more about the devastating Ebola outbreak.