A Finn in charge of the Sierra Leone cholera operations

Jarkko Mikkonen
Image: Jarkko Mikkonen

Since last August, nurse Tiina Saarikoski has been in charge of the International Red Cross cholera operation in Sierra Leone.

As team leader of the cholera operation, Saarikoski works energetically seven days a week from the country’s capital Freetown. Saarikoski’s subordinates include Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Canadian and British relief workers, and emergency units and unit parts.

In August, the president of Sierra Leone declared a national emergency in the country. On 5 September, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 16,360 cholera cases and 255 deaths. Only one of the 13 provinces reported no cholera contagion in its area. Some 60% of the new cholera cases at the beginning of September spread in the capital area of Freetown.

It is difficult to predict the cholera situation

- There are still new cases and statistical peaks can be detected in the countryside. However, there is no single area where Red Cross operations could be concentrated. It makes the operation challenging, says Saarikoski.

The international Red Cross has three different disaster units in the provinces. One of them is a Finnish clinical team that supports the local Ministry for Health, i.e. the nurses and physicians of local hospitals.

- We also conduct preventive work. This is essential for preventing the further spreading of the epidemic, says Saarikoski.

British, Norwegian and Canadian workers support the Finnish clinics though their work in communal health and sanitation teams.

- Preventive work includes strengthening the communities' understanding of ways of preventing cholera contagion through their own daily actions. People are also shown what to do and where to find help in the case of cholera symptoms, explains Saarikoski.

Sierra Leone Red Cross volunteers in a leading role

- This operation would have been impossible to initiate without the large number of volunteers the Sierra Leone Red Cross already had. They have performed health work in the communities around the entire country for years, praises Saarikoski.  

The current goal of the operation is to reduce the number of cholera deaths to a manageable level, i.e. under one percent.

According to Saarikoski, the nation‑wide percentage is currently about 1.6.

Saarikoski believes that the Red Cross cholera operation will last for approximately six months, but with a smaller capacity than was initially employed.