SF doctor returns from Sierra Leone, but will revisit to continue aiding in Ebola crisis 

click to enlarge Dr. Dan Kelly, left, recently came back from Sierra Leone, where he was helping to strengthen the health care program there in the wake of the massive Ebola outbreak. - COURTESY AHMIDU BARRIE
  • Courtesy Ahmidu Barrie
  • Dr. Dan Kelly, left, recently came back from Sierra Leone, where he was helping to strengthen the health care program there in the wake of the massive Ebola outbreak.

A UC San Francisco doctor is back in The City after spending nearly a month in Sierra Leone providing infection-control training to approximately 1,000 health care workers devastated by the largest Ebola outbreak in history.

Dr. Dan Kelly returned to San Francisco on Sept. 8 and plans to revisit the West African nation next month, where he will continue implementing a full health care strengthening program that includes a community health worker plan and an Ebola treatment unit at Wellbody Alliance, the health care organization he co-founded in 2006 in Sierra Leone's Kono District.

Sierra Leone has been one of the hardest-hit countries by what the Centers for Disease Control has called the first Ebola epidemic the world has ever known, as multiple countries in and around West Africa have been affected.

As of Saturday, Sierra Leone had 1,620 confirmed cases and 562 deaths from the virus. Liberia, which appears to be the most-stricken, had reached 2,407 patients and 1,296 deaths. Four American aid workers who contracted the disease while serving in Africa in recent months have received treatment at U.S. hospitals.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama pledged to send 3,000 U.S. military personnel to the region. Obama also called on other countries to join in quickly supplying more health workers, equipment and money. By day's end the administration asked Congress to shift another $500 million in Pentagon money to the effort, meaning the U.S. could end up devoting $1 billion to contain the outbreak.

While Kelly said he's glad those resources have been allocated, he worries that Sierra Leone's suffering will only get worse.

"I think it's already too late," Kelly said of assistance from the U.S. "It's so late that we're in a position where we need to call on huge amounts of resources. If we had done a better job of nipping this in the bud, and containing it quicker, of course we wouldn't be talking about a call for [monumental support]."

Doctors Without Borders, which has sounded the alarm for months, also welcomed the U.S. effort but said it must be put into action immediately -- and that other countries must follow suit because the window to contain the virus is closing.

"The response to Ebola continues to fall dangerously behind, and too many lives are being lost," said Brice de le Vingne, the group's director of operations. "We need more countries to stand up, we need greater concrete action on the ground, and we need it now."

At an event Tuesday to raise money for Wellbody's response to the Ebola crisis, Kelly said that's precisely why he decided to go to Sierra Leone amid the outbreak -- to provide help where others weren't.

"When I arrived, I was straight up downtrodden -- it felt like a war zone," Kelly said. "It felt like health care system had collapsed...I was seeing isolation wards abandoned, treatment centers overwhelmed."

But as his most recent trip progressed -- Kelly had previously traveled to Africa in June, before the gravity of the outbreak was fully realized -- Kelly saw more resources arrive and a greater push to offer assistance.

And more help is expected as Kelly continues to assist with restoring the country's health care system, which saw a major children's hospital close and only one surgical center remain open in Sierra Leone amid the outbreak. A coalition among Wellbody and two other organizations fighting Ebola, Partners in Health and Last Mile Health, will strengthen the response to Ebola, Kelly said.

But that's not to say the crisis is improving -- just the opposite, Kelly noted. He recalled potential Ebola patients literally running from treatment centers for fear of being locked up and stigmatized, including an elderly man with peptic ulcer disease whom Kelly had treated for years.

After arriving at the Wellbody Alliance clinic with Ebola symptoms, the man ran away but reappeared days later at the government hospital where his blood was tested. Kelly was heartbroken to learn of the man's official Ebola diagnosis.

"This was a patient that I knew, my patient, receiving a death sentence," Kelly said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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