A Day Working in an Ebola Diagnostic Lab

Elizabeth Benedikz, PhD student (the effect of bacteria on viral infection) in the School of Immunity and Infection volunteered in March 2015 for the International Medical Corps Makeni Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC), in a lab run by Public Health England.  Here are extracts from her diary and a photo showing her in the isolator.

Lizzy in the isolator

6 am: Arrive at the ETC, catch my first whiff of incredibly strong chlorine as shoes are sprayed and I change into freshly washed scrubs and wellies.  Once in the lab, there are more layers of protective clothing to be worn and a checklist of jobs to be done before any new samples can be tested, including mixing up 5000 ppm chlorine (the strongest concentration used in swimming pools being 3 ppm!).  The most important step processing samples takes place in a flexible film isolator, the clear plastic box with gloves reaching in.  We need to check there are no holes in the plastic and everything inside is clean before putting any potentially ebola-containing blood or swabs in.

8 am: Samples may arrive from patients and we check patient details, before opening the samples in the safety of the isolator and inactivate any virus present before bringing samples out in to the lab and testing with PCR.  We can also test for malaria but no other viral diseases. By now the air conditioners are struggling to keep the lab cool and it’s reaching 30 degrees C!

11 am: Positive and negative results are taken to the medics and emailed to important members of the community.  Once a confirmed ebola patient has 2 samples test negative within 48 hours they can be released to recover at home.  When this happens music is blasted around the ETC and everyone who can, takes a break to dance with the survivor as they walk out of the red zone.  This was the most amazing experience and I’m happy to say we got to see many people leave.

1 pm:  Grab some fried chicken and spicy rice for lunch and keep processing samples until the late shift arrives at the lab – they will be working until 10 pm.  Out team worked for 5 weeks and processed over 1000 samples, as we were there during a spike of infections, so although we saw a relatively high number of Ebola survivors leave, there were many deaths that the lab technicians don’t witness.  The medics and locals who volunteer and go in the red zone are the heroes, but I’m so glad I could help in some way.