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Winnipeg scientist describes her time fighting Ebola 'a unique experience'

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A Winnipeg scientist who spent part of her summer in the heart of world's worst Ebola outbreak nonchalantly describes her month in an open-air African field hospital as "a unique experience."

This summer, three teams from Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory tested Ebola patients in Guinea and Sierra Leone, two of the nations hardest hit by an outbreak that has so far claimed 1,552 lives.

Heidi Wood, a disease specialist at the federal facility on Arlington Street, led the second crew of Winnipeg scientists on the ground in Sierra Leone, where they tested dozens of samples a day within a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the jungle near the city of Kailahun.

"It was very unusual. In a lab, you normally don't get to talk to your patients," Wood told an audience of medical students, doctors, nurses and other health professionals at the University of Manitoba's Bannatyne Avenue campus Tuesday evening.

Wood is an expert in rabies and rickettsia, but jumped at the offer to fly to Africa in July, when what was already a deadly Ebola outbreak started claiming increasing numbers of victims.

So far this outbreak, more than 3,000 people have been diagnosed with Ebola, which can incubate for three weeks before patients begin showing flu-like symptoms.

The first Winnipeg team on the ground was led by Gary Kobinger, who heads up the NML's special pathogens branch and helped develop the experimental ZMapp Ebola treatment.

He was replaced by Wood's team, which also included scientists Shane Jones and Yvon Deschambault. While the Winnipeg scientists are accustomed to wearing the head-to-toe protective gear depicted in science-fiction movies, in the field they simply wore masks and gloves, doused their extremities with diluted chlorine and followed strict protocols governing how they moved about the field hospital.

A simple corridor separated the area where the patients were housed and the field laboratory, which was contained inside two tents, said Wood, who described how she and her colleagues manipulated blood samples inside a plastic "glove box," inactivated the virus and monitored test results on a computer.

More than 80 per cent of the patients yielded "highly positive" results. "This was a very unique outbreak. In the past, the teams had never detected this many positive cases," she said.

Unlike in the movies, where Ebola patients bleed from every orifice, people suffering from the illness typically appear no different than flu sufferers, said Tim Jagatic, a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor who teleconferenced into the U of M presentation.

"We didn't see any hemorrhagic symptoms. Never did we see any hemorrhaging from the eyes," he said over the phone from Detroit. "It was all very non-dramatic, if you will."

Treatment at field hospitals dropped the mortality rate for the illness to 50 per cent from 90 per cent, Jagatic said.

"Working with Tylenol and fluids in the middle of the jungle, we were able to see some significant results," he said, cautioning it's possible the virus may have mutated into a less lethal form.

Jagatic spoke of the challenges in combating rumours foreign medical workers were deliberately spreading the virus or harvesting organs at the field stations. In Guinea, traditional funeral rites had to be discouraged, as mourners would touch the bodies of Ebola victims. The disease is spread primarily through direct contact with blood.

Wood also described concerns about security when ZMapp was administered to health-care workers. Given the deaths of 134 west African doctors and nurses so far, health-care workers who remain are terrified, she said.

"Having lived on the ground in the middle of the outbreak, it would be reassuring to know treatments are available," she said.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2014 A3

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