Engineers have important role in helping to combat Ebola

Engineers are urgently required to help relieve the Ebola crisis in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Ebola viral disease (EVD) is a severe and often fatal illness that in Liberia alone has infected approximately 3,600 people and killed over 2,000 during the current outbreak. According to the World Health Organisation, it is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads among people through human-to-human transmission.

Carmen Paradiso, global advisor on water and sanitation for the International Medical Corps told The Engineer that the crisis requires engineers that can assist with the design, construction, maintenance and operation of health facilities, plus proposed isolation units in areas where there is a lack of treatment centres.

Outside of such health facilities, engineering skills are seen as essential in the communities where outbreaks occur, providing expertise and support following procedures such as contact tracing.

Paradiso said that her organisation – one of only two international NGOs treating Ebola patients – takes a close interest in civil engineers who may have a background in water and sanitation solutions and can apply them in new healthcare facilities.

‘There is a high demand for disinfection solutions, so there’s a high demand for water supply in such a unit. Obviously, wastewater needs to be taken care of as well, ‘ she said. ‘We also have a need for construction engineers who perhaps have experience with infection control measures and health facilities.’

Site engineers – who Paradiso said would be looking after the smooth operation and maintenance of systems within a facility – would be required on the ground at all times.

Calming a crisis

‘Then there are what we call WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) engineers or technicians [who] are also required to supervise various infection control teams.’

The highly infectious nature of Ebola requires those working in high-risk areas to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), parts of which need to be disposed of or disinfected for reuse.

‘That’s quite a potentially risky task to do so there’s different teams with different tasks around the facility and the engineers would be training, [and] supervising them and basically putting those teams to work in the facility,’ said Paradiso.

She added that work does not begin on a new health facility until all necessary measures are in place, and that ‘absolute priority’ is given to the health and safety of people that work in them.

Work schedules depend on whether a person is entering a high-risk facility or not, and IMC currently has people working on six week rotations.

‘People who are not entering a high-risk zone obviously have a different    level of potential exposure to risk and they could potentially be staying for a longer period of time,’ she said.

‘Awareness raising is something that we often do through hygiene promotion and health promotion so there is quiet a big need, even outside of the facilities,’ added Paradiso. ‘If there are people out there who feel that they don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge about what is required in the facilities then they can still be really helpful out there in the communities.’

Click here to find out how your engineering skills can assist International Medical Corps in dealing with the Ebola crisis.

Key facts about EVD

  • The average EVD case fatality rate is around 50%. Case fatality rates have varied from 25% to 90% in past outbreaks.
  • The first EVD outbreaks occurred in remote villages in Central Africa, near tropical rainforests, but the most recent outbreak in west Africa has involved major urban as well as rural areas.
  • Community engagement is key to successfully controlling outbreaks. Good outbreak control relies on applying a package of interventions, namely case management, surveillance and contact tracing, a good laboratory service, safe burials and social mobilisation.
  • Early supportive care with rehydration and symptomatic treatment improves survival. There is as yet no licensed treatment proven to neutralise the virus but a range of blood, immunological and drug therapies are under development.
  • There are currently no licensed Ebola vaccines but 2 potential candidates are undergoing evaluation.

Source: World Health Organisation. More details about the Ebola virus can be found here.