"The Lassa ward is the safest place for me"
"The Lassa ward is the safest place for me," Dr. Grant tells me as we sit in the library of the Kenema Government Hospital. My confused expression leads him to elaborate on his statement. He explains that when he is examining patients in the Lassa ward, he is fully aware of what he is dealing with, which means that the precautions that he takes to ensure his own safety, as well as the safety of the nurses is paramount. When comparing this to working in the general wards, where universal precautions are sometimes more loosely followed and occasionally ignored, his reasoning starts to make sense.
Dr. Donald S. Grant is the Chief Physician at the Lassa Isolation Unit at the Kenema Government Hospital, the only dedicated Lassa ward in the world. All suspected Lassa Fever cases in Sierra Leone are referred to Kenema, and if laboratory tests confirm the diagnosis, patients will remain at the hospital where they will receive treatment free of cost.
To say that Dr. Grant's job is not for everyone is an understatement. The Lassa virus causes a hemorrhagic fever which can result in those infected bleeding to death. The disease carries a lot of social stigma in the endemic region and fear, even among medical staff, means that finding people willing to care for Lassa patients is a challenge. Fears are usually based on a lack of understanding of how something works as well as feeling like you are not in control of a situation. This is why Dr. Grant and the Lassa Fever Outreach team are on a mission to educate healthcare workers about universal precautions as well as the dynamics of the disease. Health workers need to understand that they can protect themselves by adhering to strict barrier nursing protocols and that not everyone who falls ill will necessarily die, as long as treatment is administered promptly. While there is no doubt that healthcare professionals are in a vulnerable position, there are measures they can take to reduce nosocomial transmission. Moreover, equipped with a better understanding of the symptoms they are in a position to save lives, as timing is a key factor in reducing the mortality rate of Lassa Fever.
Fear of Lassa Fever is understandable. Even Dr. Grant admits that he is afraid of the disease. "But it is a fear that keeps me on guard. It doesn't prevent me from entering the ward," he explains.