Special UK Team Rushes to Stop Potential Outbreak from Sierra Leone Mudslides

On Monday, August 14, 2017, Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, was blanketed by devastation. Mudslides and extensive flooding killed at least 500 people, leaving many others missing or homeless, and without hygienic resources. According to BBC, debris and red mud from the mountain covered the capital within a few short hours.

Sierra Leone is home to Africa's highest annual rainfall. Although the people of Sierra Leone are no strangers to excessive rainfall, perhaps the most concerning part is that the rainy season is not yet fully matured. Flooding from the muddy waters has already left hundreds of people dead and destroyed vital sanitation systems. Without these systems, usable water is left vulnerable to contamination. The World Health Organization’s Sierra Leone officer in charge, Dr. Alexander Chimbaru, gave a statement saying, “[t]he floods and landslides have caused damage to water and sanitation systems in affected areas thus resulting in contamination of open water sources, and also created possible breeding sites for vectors like mosquitoes.”

Water-borne diseases activated by such creatures can potentially lead to widespread outbreaks, which is why the country’s government reached out to the recently inaugurated Public Health Rapid Support Team. Backed by the British government, this Team was started as a result of the West African Ebola virus epidemic, which put a spotlight on the global effects delayed responses have on public health. The Team is comprised of specialized professionals including, epidemiologists, microbiologists, clinicians, social scientists, and researchers. The responsibilities of these professionals range from identifying the outbreak’s cause, to tracking the outbreak, to developing effective response procedures. Public Health Minister, Nicola Blackwood, stated that, “[t]he ability to deploy emergency support to investigate and respond to disease outbreaks within 48 hours will save lives, prevent further outbreaks and cement the UK’s position as a leader in global health security.”

In Sierra Leone, this special Team was brought in to aid the Sierra Leonean government in putting a stop to a potential outbreak before it happens. Prevention before the outbreak gains a chance to spread is key, considering the fact that diseases do not conform to property boundaries or along political lines. Disease can spread without warning and without knowledge until it has already hit. The hope is that confronting the disease at the point of outbreak from the start will play a large role in preventing the spread of diseases from going international.

On a daily basis, Team members gathered data from the local communities heavily affected within Freetown in an effort to identify and follow trends of potential epidemics early on. This data​ included the symptoms people were experiencing, the types of medication people had taken to remedy their symptoms, the conditions people had been exposed to, among many other factors. The Team members then used that data to determine whether there might be a trend signaling the beginning of a potentially significant outbreak. Examining the outbreak early on could mean remedying the catastrophe before it has a chance to have a perilous effect on other parts of the community, country, or world, as we unfortunately experienced with both the Ebola and Zika epidemics.

Coco Arima is a May 2019 J.D. candidate at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Arima graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in Spanish. She is currently serving on the DePaul Law Review and is an active Fellow of the Jaharis Health Law Institute.