A Jewish obstetrician has told of working 24-hour shifts in Sierra Leone as he desperately tries to combat the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus among pregnant women.
Dr Benjamin Black is working with Médecins Sans Frontières, one of only two organisations working in West Africa to stop the spread of the epidemic, which is currently killing up to 60 percent of those infected.
Black, 32, was a specialist registrar at north London’s Whittington Hospital before taking a sabbatical to work in maternal health in Sierra Leone. He flew out in May, just as the deadly Ebola virus was beginning to spread across the border from Guinea.
“It would be hard work out here without an Ebola epidemic. This is the icing on the cake. I can’t even describe it – we see heart-breaking stories every day that are totally unnecessary and avoidable.”
Sierra Leone suffers from one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates – one in 21 women die in childbirth.
The virus has put extreme pressure on Dr Black’s work, as its common flu-like symptoms make it extremely difficult to diagnose.
“The stakes are very high. If [the patient] has Ebola, we need to be taking extreme precautions and certainly not do any operations where blood might be flying around. The way it presents itself is very vague and the symptoms fit with almost any patient who comes into emergency obstetrics. We have to diagnose on suspicion.”
Since February, 887 people across Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have died of the virus, which spreads by contact with infected blood and bodily fluids. The disease presents a very high risk to health workers, who may also face a battle for trust from local leaders.
“What shocks me the most is how late people wait before coming in to get medical help. With Ebola, people wait even longer than they did because they are very paranoid about coming to the medical services. They’ve heard there’s a disease, which many see as witchcraft.”
Dr Black, from Cheadle, Cheshire, grew up in a Modern Orthodox family and attended Yeshurun synagogue and Bnei Akiva. He says it was always his aim to work in humanitarian aid.
“My Jewish cultural background has a huge bearing on what I’ve chosen to do. A lot of the things that you learn as a Jewish child involved in youth activities is about the importance of community and helping others.
“It’s part of my Jewish identity to try and do good in the world.”