It has claimed more than 5,000 lives and orphaned hundreds of children.

The Sierra Leone Ebola epidemic is the worst in history, with 10,000 cases of the killer disease confirmed. Currently there is no known cure.

Consultant children’s emergency nurse Julie Flaherty, 59, spent five weeks in the west African country as part of an emergency response team provided by the UK government.

Mum-of-seven Julie, who lives in Marsden but works in A&E at Salford Royal Hospital, is used to seeing tragedy on a daily basis and has been to disaster zones before, including in Uganda and India.

But she said the conditions in Sierra Leone were “one of the most devastating things” she had ever seen.

“The deaths are agonising deaths,” she said.

“For the vast majority it’s a painful, long death – the suffering is horrendous.

“And for survivors it’s not great either as they become outcasts.

“There’s still a fear they’re contagious. That’s the thing that nobody knows. Is this a one off or will they get it again?

Julie said among all the despair there were still some small glimmers of hope.

“I don’t think anything prepares you to cope with it,” she said.

“Especially when children are involved.

“The real tragedy is when you know babies are going to die.

“Even if a pregnant mother survived their baby would die.

“We never saw any babies that survived and we weren’t able to assist any mums in labour.

“It’s really sad but we did see children survive, including some we didn’t think would.

“One girl Jamba, aged 9, her mother died.

“Her dad, her brothers and her sisters all died.

“But then we found her grandma, who had survived, in a different place.

“That was a really great moment as she was on her own and we thought she was orphaned.

“Her auntie, who we thought was also going to die, also survived.

Nurse, Julie Flaherty of Marsden back from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.
 

“What people don’t realise is the country is in lock-down, there’s no travel in or out.

“There’s no work, no school, little money and not much food – but still big smiles.

“The people are amazing.”

Julie, who was has worked for the NHS for 42 years, said members of the health care team helped each other get through the trauma.

“The big thing is the camaraderie,” she said.

“The closeness of the team was key – your life depends on them and theirs on you.

“We didn’t know from day to day what was coming in.

“The disease doesn’t discriminate, some day it was four or five little ones, others just adults.

“It’s a funny disease; you can have what appear very well patients who you think are absolutely fine who suddenly die and some who take days to die.

“It’s agonising.

“And then some do turn the corner when you think they won’t, it’s not something you can predict.”

Julie said many people still didn’t understand that Ebola was not an airborne disease.

She revealed she had returned to the UK on the same flight as Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey, who later discovered she had contracted Ebola.

She said: “We were concerned whether she was going to make it.

“I trained with her before we left in York but we were in different teams in Sierra Leone.

“I didn’t meet her again until five weeks later at the airport and she seemed absolutely fine.

“When we found out it was an absolute mystery.

“We were so disciplined out there, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out how she got it.

“There’s a big misconception with Ebola, it can only be contracted through bodily fluids. It’s not something that’s airborne.

“When I got back at first people didn’t want to give me a big hug.

“But I’ve been back four weeks now I’m fine.”

More than 1,600 British health workers have volunteered to help in Sierra Leone. The UK has committed a £325 million package of direct support to help contain, control, treat and, ultimately, defeat Ebola.