Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan Passes away in Sierra Leone

Dr Sheik Umar Khan
In these days of unnecessary politicization of life in Sierra Leone,  it is rare for the people of the troubled West African country to display solidarity on anything. Yesterday however,  Sierra Leoneans from all walks of life were united in their grief over the death of the doctor leading the fight against Ebola in the country Dr. Sheik Umar Khan.
Dr. Khan Conducting Ebola
Workshop in Segbwema

Dr. Khan was a Lassa Fever specialist who saw himself at the forefront of the country's fight against the dreaded Ebola virus that is currently on the rampage in Sierra Leone and the neighboring countries of Liberia and Guinea,  with recently reported instances in Mali and Nigeria. Lassa Fever, which is spread by a species of small mice common in Sierra Leone, was a major scourge in the East of  the country back in the 1980s. It is characterized by extreme fever and an inflammation of the mucous membranes and was extremely fatal in those days.
Dr. Khan With John
Benjamin in Kenema

However, with the timely intervention of the US sponsored Lassa Fever Research Project located at the Nixon memorial hospital Segbwema in the 1980s and the tireless work of infectious disease experts like Austin Demby, Dr. Aniru Conteh and some other virologists, together with the heroic nurses of the Lassa Team based in Segbwema, Lassa Fever was eventually brought under some control, but not until the leading doctor at the time Dr. Aniru Conteh lost his life to Lassa Fever,  after many years saving countless lives. The Lassa Fever Research Project was relocated to Kenema at the height of the war.
Ebola Worker
Sierra Leone

39 year old Dr. Sheik Umar Khan,  a graduate of the Sierra Leone College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, (COMAH) the leading medical training institution in the country, was heading the Lassa Fever team at Kenema when the Ebola outbreak was reported in Kailahun district, eastern Sierra Leone.  Given the similarities between Lassa Fever and Ebola, it was natural that the Lassa team at Kenema, which was the most adequately prepared to provide a local response to the outbreak, take the lead in combating the virus before the intervention of international organizations with years of experience fighting the outbreak in Congo and other areas of Eastern Africa.
Talking to Segbwema People
about Ebola

As soon as the Ebola threat became imminent,  Dr. Khan started conducting Ebola education workshops in Kailahun district. One such workshop in Segbwema was reported in one of my earlier blog post. Dr. Khan had in a recent interview about his work with Ebola patients expressed personal fear of contracting the disease himself,  but had put his service to the patients ahead of his own personal fears and spent many hours trying to help people afflicted with the terrible disease.

Unfortunately, Ebola patients are highly contagious and in the majority of incidences of outbreaks of the virus,  health care personnel dealing with the victims have been among the highest casualties. Sierra Leone has been no different.

Since the outbreak of the disease in the second quarter of 2014, many medical personnel at the front line of care have paid the ultimate price. From Kailahun to Kenema,  many health care workers have lost their lives to Ebola, especially between May and August of this year.
Just last week,  four nurses at the Ebola center in Kenema including the head nurse with over 15 years experience dealing with Lassa succumbed to the outbreak.  It was at this same time that the 39 year old Dr. Khan was reported to have contracted the virus and was evacuated to the MSF treatment facility in Kailahun.

Dr. Khan's infection with the Ebola virus has been widely reported in the local and international press. Get well messages and prayers for him have poured in from all over the world since he contracted the virus.

Just this past weekend there was some encouraging news from Kailahun, as he was reportedly responding to care and seemed to be in high spirits. Many thought that with the timely and expert intervention by the experienced MSF team he would be one of the success stories,  but alas that was not the case.

Yesterday morning we received news that the heroic doctor had succumbed to the virus and become the latest member of the grim statistics of those who did not survive the outbreak. 

Just today it was reported that all flights to and from Sierra Leone and Liberia has been canceled,  especially after the death of an airline passenger from Liberia who died in Lagos,  Nigeria,  one of the most densely populated cities in Africa. We are now learning that the victim is one David Sawyer a recent of the state of Minnesota who had gotten a job in his home country Liberia and frequently traveled between USA and Liberia.

The Ebola infection, characterized by high fevers, emesis and hemorrhaging from open body orifices, has a painful course and currently has no known cure. The current outbreak in West Africa is reported to be the deadliest in the history of the disease.


Unknown said...

Mr Sherrif,
I had the pleasure to work in Lassa center Kenema in 2004 and 2005.Dr Khan a young physician often sought help in difficult cases at the time.I remained in contact with him as he did his training in Ghana and on his return to Kenema.I have been getting conflicting reports about his health.Please confirm.You also mention the Head nurse of lassa center.Is it true.There were Dr Ibrahim Bundu and Dr Koroma in Kenema General Hospital.Any news of them.

Sheku Sheriff said...

Yes. Dr. Khan and the head nurse both passed away this month.

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