FILE - Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in the Waterloo district of Freetown, Oct. 21, 2014.
FILE - Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in the Waterloo district of Freetown, Oct. 21, 2014.

In Sierra Leone the number of Ebola cases continues to increase. The Ministry of Health and Sanitation says the country's death toll is now just over 1,000.  Since August, a special emergency number, 117, has been used for people to call with any Ebola-related concerns.  The call center is overwhelmed with calls daily. 

Grace Kargobai, who has been working at the call center since August, says that she wanted to help her country as a first responder.

“It is interesting, it is fulfilling, especially with the kind of crisis we are having now, to feel you are a Sierra Leonean and helping people, it is fulfilling for me,” she said.

Calls to pick up a dead body or to check into a suspected Ebola case come here hourly.

The 117 call center staffs about 52 employes per s
The 117 call center staffs about 52 employees per shift, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Oct, 30, 2014. (Nina deVries / VOA)

The center used to be based at the World Health Organization office in Freetown. It was moved to a bigger location so it could have more staff.

The emergency number used to only exist for expectant mothers or those with children under five. It shifted gears to serve the Ebola crisis but people still call about other health-related matters too.

Around-the-clock operation

The center currently gets about 1,250 calls per day.

There are about 52 employees per shift and the center operates around the clock, seven days a week.

The job can be hard because many calls are from people saying Ebola is not real.

First responders at the 117 call center Grace Karg
First responders at the 117 call center Grace Kargobai (left) and Victoria Dyka (far right), Freetown, Sierra Leone, Oct, 30, 2014. ( Nina deVries / VOA)

“So most of the time when you have calls like that and they don’t give you the opportunity to explain, what’s really the importance of not touching somebody, who is sick.. that’s the most challenging aspect of the job,” says Kargobai.

The center often gets complaints from the public saying it is too slow to respond.

First responders are actually just the first point of contact and still have to call surveillance teams to collect bodies, explains another first responder, Victoria Dyka.

“We at 117, are not ones responsible to go and take bodies, the sick people, but they [callers] think we are the ones responsible for that, so they will get mad, say we are not doing our work, but we have to understand that they are going through too much pressure, so we have to be wiser with them, speak nicely and some will eventually calm down,” she said.

Another challenge is prank calls. Reynold Senesi, the call center manager, says staff receive a high number of them everyday.

“The system we have can only accommodate a small volume of calls, but with the number of pranks calls coming from all angles, it really makes it difficult for those who need us, to reach us,” said Senesi.

He adds they are talking with the police and the military to look at ways of bringing the prank callers to justice.

Growing need

In the meantime, staff continue to come and do their job with pride.  Senesi is hopeful the increased international response will help ease the pressure on his workers.

“We’ve got a lot of ambulances coming in, we have more [medical] personnel being trained, we have the Cubans coming in, the British, the South Africans, so they all are adding to human resources that we really need,” said Senesi.
And because cases continue to increase, including in Freetown, the center will soon move, once again to a bigger location.