CDC Lab was Important Outpost in Ebola War
“With its yellow walls and simple tin roof, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lab in Bo, Sierra Leone, would be easy to overlook. Although there were no indications that this tiny lab sat squarely on the front lines in the fight against Ebola, it was vital to efforts to turn back the epidemic in Sierra Leone.
Tasked with testing the samples brought to the lab from seven of Sierra Leone’s 15 districts, CDC microbiologists Bobbie Rae Erickson and Shelley Campbell, and their CDC colleagues, understood better than anyone the enormity of the epidemic.
During the outbreak, which evolved into an epidemic, more than 11,300 people died and more than 28,600 were infected with Ebola in West Africa. Testing numerous blood and swab samples each day, speed was critical. “To be able to get the results out faster meant you could move patients much more quickly. You could start the contact tracing much faster as well, and get patients into treatment.”
To be able to get the results out faster meant you could move patients much more quickly. You could start the contact tracing much faster as well, and get patients into treatment.
To aid in that mission, the CDC Foundation stepped in with crucial support. By utilizing more than $55 million in funding provided by donors, the CDC Foundation played a critical role in helping CDC respond quickly and flexibly to the Ebola outbreak. Funding for some of the lab equipment and supplies for the Bo lab was provided primarily by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant.
“One way the CDC Foundation helped was with machinery that allowed us to process faster and with more numbers,” Erickson said. “The machines we use are able to process between 15-90 samples in 20 minutes, saving valuable time and allowing for high sample loads and overall results in six to 12 hours.”
The machines we use are able to process between 15-90 samples in 20 minutes, saving valuable time and allowing for high sample loads and overall results in six to 12 hours.
From August 2014 to January 2015, the lab in Bo conducted diagnostics on more than 11,000 samples. With samples arriving daily, and still others flown in three times per week by helicopter, the small CDC lab in Bo worked well into each night to meet the demand. So infectious was the Ebola virus that lab staff sprayed the packaging and paperwork of all samples received with a disinfectant solution before handling them.
They donned full personal protective equipment (PPE) to test the actual samples in a small, well-ventilated facility behind the lab itself. Because working in the confines of the lab was physically isolating, Campbell said, they needed to stay focused on the bigger picture of saving lives while processing the samples each day.
Campbell recalled a particularly heartbreaking case that put a face for her on the Ebola crisis. “We had an 11-year-old girl dropped off at the gate of the Ebola treatment unit,” Campbell said. “The workers had to stay six feet away from her, so just watching her walk in alone from the gate was very hard. She died that night.”
On their second deployment to West Africa, Campbell and Erickson knew well the long-term needs in Sierra Leone. Addressing that need to strengthen the health infrastructure was CDC’s top priority, while still continuing to fight the virus by processing as many samples as quickly as possible.
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Photos: © David Snyder/CDC Foundation