Engineering Change in a Global Health Crisis

2In 2014, the world’s largest Ebola outbreak spread rampantly across the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Since the outbreak began, 27,600 cases of Ebola have been reported with more than 11,000 fatalities. The highest concentration of cases were reported in Sierra Leone. Hospitals in the country’s capital of Freetown lacked the manpower and infrastructure to handle the amount of cases flooding in. Fortunately, doctors and health workers from around the world rallied to support those suffering from the epidemic.

A global health crisis calls for a global response. Doctors and health workers are on the front lines in a global health crisis, but they have a supporting cast of diverse skills behind them. Local officials, community leaders and teachers are important agents of change. But how can engineers contribute to a global health crisis? What role can they play when an epidemic strikes?

In November 2014, King’s College London contacted Engineers Without Borders USA for engineering assistance with their work in the Connaught Hospital in Freetown. They were specifically looking for engineers who understood how to work in a developing world context, where resources were limited and cultural awareness must be heightened.

EWB-USA’s Engineering Service Corps (ESC) launched in 2014 to connect our most seasoned members to opportunities like this. The ESC advertises volunteer opportunities from governments, NGOs and other institutions–like King’s College–to our highly skilled professional members through monthly emails. After reading about the opportunity, EWB-USA member Gerard Dalziel saw that his engineering skills could make a real, tangible difference in the fight against Ebola. In January 2015, Gerard flew across the Atlantic to help King’s College strengthen the infrastructure of the Connaught Hospital.

It is widely recognized that the weakness of the healthcare system in West Africa was one of the causes of the severity of the Ebola epidemic. Over the past year, the international community stepped up to provide the country with resources to bring healthcare facilities up to a minimum standard of infectious disease prevention and care so that the system is better prepared if there is another epidemic. For engineers like Gerard, this involves planning and preparing contract documents to refurbish portions of the hospital campus for the post-Ebola rebound of the Freetown health care system.

As the Volunteer Site Engineer, Gerard’s day-to-day duties range from repairing a centrifuge to consulting with the Sierra Leone Fire Brigade on a safety assessment of the hospital wards. The daily reality of Gerard’s work in Sierra Leone is intensified by the ongoing struggle to eradicate the Ebola in the country as a whole. Since the outbreak began, 876 hospital personnel and health workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola, with 509 reported deaths. Extreme safety measures are taken by all hospital personnel. “You have to wash your hands in chlorinated water every time you enter the hospital grounds, in addition to rinsing them off with alcohol gel several times a day,” said Gerard.

In order to plan a new Accidents & Emergency Department for the hospital, Gerard had to measure the dimensions of the existing holding unit. “I was able to measure the outside of the building in partial personal protective equipment, but trained medical staff had to take the inside dimensions in full protective equipment,” said Gerard. The tape used to measure the inside was incinerated with other medical waste as possibly being contaminated.

Despite the difficult working conditions and the looming threat of Ebola, Gerard describes the overall atmosphere as hopeful. “The volunteer medical staff from Kings Hospital in London and the in-country Sierra Leonian staff are extraordinarily determined to eradicate Ebola and to come out of this crisis stronger and better prepared to to meet the future healthcare needs of the city,” said Gerard. “I hope to continue to share in that work by lending my engineering skills wherever needed.”

The number of new Ebola cases has significantly declined since the peak of the outbreak, due in large part to the efforts of the doctors, local officials, aid workers and engineers, like Gerard. Through the Engineering Service Corps, hundreds of EWB-USA professional members are prepared to lend their engineering skills and global development knowledge to fill critical gaps in global crises, such as the Ebola outbreak. When Gerard’s work is done, he will be able to look back and see that he helped build a stronger hospital, a healthier community and a better world.