Ebola: "I was terrified of my first time in the high-risk zone. Now I train others."

Three years after the end of the major Ebola epidemic in West Africa, an outbreak of the deadly disease was declared on 1 August 2018 in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In this new fight against Ebola, MSF relies on veteran staff to share their knowledge. One of them is Alpha Diallo, a water and sanitation expert from Guinea.

I started working with Médecins sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in 2011, well before the 2014 epidemic, in a maternity and paediatric hospital in Conakry, the capital of Guinea.

When the outbreak was officially declared in mid-March 2014, I started working on an Ebola project in the town of Macenta. This was the very beginning of the epidemic and I took the opportunity to learn the protocols and protective measures to follow when working in an Ebola treatment centre.

What is a WatSan?

WatSans – meaning “water and sanitation specialists” – are very important in an Ebola epidemic.

We support the medical teams a lot and you can't separate the medical response from the water and sanitation response. WatSans are in charge of infection prevention and control, and must, therefore, ensure that everything going in, and especially out, of the Ebola treatment centre is not contaminated.

If this is not properly and meticulously done, an Ebola treatment centre can easily become a new source of the epidemic's spread.

I remember when I first went to the high-risk zone of an Ebola treatment centre. I was terrified.

My job is to cut the transmission chains and make sure no one is infected. But, unfortunately, often we also have to decontaminate the bodies of deceased people who have lost their battle against Ebola.

A second skin

I remember when I first went to the high-risk zone of an Ebola treatment centre. I was terrified. I had been working at the centre for some time, but I had tried to delay my first time going into the high-risk area a little.

After a long day, a logistician noticed that I was nervous about going with him into the area to change a lamp.

"If we don't change this lamp, people can't be treated at night and they might die,” he told me.

That's when I realised that I had to put aside my initial fear. I went in and lost my fear instantaneously.

Today, the distinctive yellow personal protective equipment (PPE) almost feels like a second skin.

No room for mistakes

On a daily basis, I now conduct training with my colleagues in Mangina – where one of the current Ebola treatment centres is based in DRC – to ensure that all procedures are adopted and comply with current standards.

My work will only be done here when everyone is concerned, attentive and if everything is 100 percent safe.


Alpha trains MSF staff in safe Ebola protocols
Alpha trains MSF staff in safe Ebola protocols

We can't afford to send an excuse letter after making a mistake. That's not how it works with Ebola.

I am severe and direct, and sometimes it can be a shock to some people. But, with Ebola in the equation, you don't want to make any mistakes.

If you do not follow procedures, if you are not careful, you could be responsible for the next epicentre of the epidemic.

The ongoing epidemic

This current epidemic is far from over. And, at the moment, people are reluctant to support the Ebola response.

I think that's normal. This reluctance and mistrust was still present in Guinea at the end of the epidemic there. However, there were still handwashing points in all public places and private transports. Taxis were all equipped with hydro-alcoholic solutions so people could wash their hands.

People have become aware of the need for these preventive measures and this change in behaviour is a clear indication of a growing understanding of the danger of the disease.

As for me, I am always ready to help where my help is needed. That's why I'm here.

Wherever I need to be, I will help others save lives.