UWE graduate Laura helps in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone

Issue date: 13 January 2015

Inspirational UWE Bristol microbiology graduate Laura Holding has recently returned from West Africa working with Save the Children UK to help deal with the Ebola crisis.

Laura graduated from UWE in 2013 with a master's degree in medical microbiology , which she found really useful in helping fight the disease. She worked at the first British-built treatment centre, based at Kerry Town in Sierra Leone, for 5 weeks conducting laboratory tests on patient samples to determine who is infected with the virus.

Her normal job is working in a food, water and environmental lab for Public Health England who granted her paid time off for her trip to Sierra Leone. Together with her degree course, this gave her good knowledge of clinical diagnostics as well as information on the epidemiology, transmission, diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Laura says, “Like most of my colleagues here I wanted to use my training and education to help a genuine cause. Studying exotic pathogens was my favourite topic – but I didn't ever envisage I'd have to use the knowledge first hand!”

For Laura, a typical day involved setting up the lab and cleaning all surfaces with a very strong bleach solution and ensuring there are enough disinfectants, consumables and reagents. There are usually five staff in at any one time, and they carry out safety checks and rotate between duties such as isolator work, RNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), depending on the experience and expertise of each person and how many samples there are. Staff deal with up to 150 samples per day.

She continues, “We have a varied skill set in each team with people from different scientific backgrounds, including Public Health England, the Ministry of Defence, NHS and also PhD students.

“The kit we wear – known as personal protective equipment - used at sample reception does make it very difficult to communicate at times. We wear respirators and a face visor and as samples don't always come in a uniform manner, it can take time in the heat to sort through and check they are in a safe condition to process. It does get uncomfortable but we make sure we drink lots of water. We are very lucky to have air conditioning in the lab which I know previously deployments have not had the luxury of, so although it can get hot, it's never unbearable. Another ritual that has become routine in Sierra Leone is washing our hands in a weak chlorine solution and having our temperature checked on entering and leaving various sites - it's going to feel strange not to do that!

“As we are based at the treatment centre you do feel part of the bigger picture so it's rewarding as well as sad. Obviously there are good times too such as when a very sick patient makes a full recovery and can go home. I was scared at first because you just don't know what to expect but we have the training and proper equipment, and a team of experts which is reassuring.

“The country is beautiful - its name translates as lion mountain - and its people are doing all they can, many of them helped build and work at the centre.

“Before I arrived I imagined a broken country so initially I was surprised at how life was carrying on as normal, on the surface anyway; markets are still bustling, people are out with nets fishing and people are upbeat. However there are a lot of other consequences of the outbreak such as economic impact, hospitals and schools closing and various other projects in the country coming to a halt.”

Laura returned to the United Kingdom on November 24 after an experience of a lifetime. Anyone inspired by Laura's story and wishing to make a donation to the international effort to combat Ebola can do so at Save The Children Fund or Medecins sans Frontieres.

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