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Aid worker tells of Ebola battle

A British humanitarian worker in Sierra Leone has told of the country's desperate bid to contain the deadly Ebola virus, as NHS staff prepare to travel to Africa to help tackle the outbreak.

Rachael Cummings, a humanitarian health adviser with the charity Save The Children, travelled to the west African country more than two weeks ago to work on a new treatment centre being built near the capital Freetown.

The UK-funded facility is around 80% complete and is due to begin treating patients at the end of October, Ms Cummings said.

It comes after British military personnel and aid experts were drafted in following a direct request for assistance from the World Health Organisation and the government of Sierra Leone.

More than 160 NHS staff are due to travel to Sierra Leone after answering a call for volunteers to help fight the disease earlier this month.

Speaking from Kerrytown, a community at the heart of the epidemic, Ms Cummings said the atmosphere in the country was "calm" and "subdued".

"There's been no civil unrest compared with other countries like Liberia," the former NHS nurse said.

"In Sierra Leone, people are going about their everyday lives. People have changed their behaviour. There is no handshaking, no touching, no hugging.

"People are protecting themselves which is absolutely what you need to do."

The 41-year-old, who is originally from Birmingham and now lives in London, said streets in Sierra Leone had been deserted as people were asked to remain in their homes during the country's house-to-house sensiti sation campaign.

"People understood that certain quite extreme measures need to be taken to protect the wider population," she said.

With NHS staff due to arrive in the country in the coming weeks, Ms Cummings said the volunteers would need to ensure they are ready to work in a "difficult environment".

"The number one rule is to protect yourself," she said.

"Ebola is transferred through bodily fluids so no touching, no contact. Ensure food you are eating in restaurants or hotels is prepared properly."

Doctors and scientists are in a race against time to find a medical solution to the epidemic that is rapidly spiralling out of control.

The death toll from the infection, which has spread across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, has reportedly risen to more than 3,000.

Ms Cummings, who worked in Zimbabwe following its cholera outbreak and in Indonesia after the 2004 Tsunami, admitted she was more anxious about travelling to Sierra Leone than previous relief efforts.

British nurse William Pooley contracted the virus in the country, but the 29-year-old survived after being airlifted back to the UK for specialist treatment at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

"There was some anxiety about coming out," Ms Cummings said.

"But when I arrived I felt much more in control. You just get into a routine."

Ms Cummings is part of a team of technical advisers from Save The Children, including three other Britons, who are working on the centre.

They include experts in health, water, sanitation, hygiene and logistics, as they coordinate medical supplies, recruitment, training and sanitation systems.

British Army engineers are building the treatment centre while the volunteer operation is co-ordinated by UK-Med, a non-governmental organisation specialising in the provision of health staff to conflict and disaster zones.

The Department for International Development (DfID) said earlier this month more than 40 military personnel and humanitarian staff had arrived in Freetown to oversee the construction of the UK's medical facility and assist with the UK's response.

The UK is committed to boosting public health provision across Sierra Leone, including support for 700 Ebola treatment beds.

DfID has said the UK would build at least four new Ebola treatment facilities near urban centres including Port Loko, Freetown, Makeni, and Bo.

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