Monday, 8 December 2014
I’ve had quite a few conversations with people about what happens when I get back. My housemate cautiously asked me the other day, “Claire, will you, um, be staying here when you’re back?” gulp, an uneasy look in his eye. I can completely understand that there is a fear that returning healthcare workers (or members of the public, for that matter) bring back ebola to the UK. The issue of enforced quarantine certainly reached the media headlines in the US in a big way. I don’t think it has been very well explained in media that unless someone starts showing symptoms they are not infectious and they pose no risk to others. So I took the time to explain to my housemate that he will be perfectly safe to live with me, share the same cutlery, sit on the same loo etc when I get back as long as I am well (i.e. no fever, muscle aches, diarrhoea or anything else). And trust me if I have any doubt that I am developing any symptom whatsoever I will lock myself in my room and call 999 requesting a PPE-pick-up (personal protective equipment) ASAP.
Armed with this knowledge and understanding of the virus’ transmissibility my first ‘hands-on’ (excuse the pun!) irrational fear of contracting ebola took me completely by surprise. It was last week when I went to the Alma Mata talk at the Royal College of Physicians. I met one of the returning KSLP volunteers after the talk. He had just got back from Freetown a few days before and without any thought I held out my right hand to greet him. He made some reference to no-one shaking hands in Sierra Leone but he would allow me to decide whether to shake his or not now he was back in the UK. (I already noted that he had said earlier in the talk that he didn’t have a fever and I’m sure he wouldn’t have been there if he did!) I grasped his hand in mine and gave it the firmest shake I’m capable of, I think my left hand might have joined in as well just for good measure. Almost immediately, I realised I had the picture of Barak Obama demonstrating how one should approach a survivor of ebola in my mind and not someone who may be incubating it! All of a sudden I became distracted, he was talking to me but I wasn’t really listening, all I wanted to do was wash my hands! I knew I was being irrational but a moment later I made some excuse to run to the bathroom and scrubbed my hands a few times until they were clean, then a bit more! I was so annoyed with myself for letting my irrational fear overcome sense and science.
This experience made me really aware that it doesn’t really matter how many times I say to my housemate or anyone else that they will be safe. There’s always that human instinct of distrust and fear and I suppose that’s what the media has taken grip of unfortunately. All I can do is be respectful of how this pathogen makes even the most sensible of us feel and try not to be too judgemental or condescending!