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The 2014–2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa became a humanitarian crisis that exposed significant gaps in infection prevention and control (IPC) capacity in primary care facilities in Sierra Leone. Operational partners recognised the national gap and rapidly scaled-up an IPC training and infrastructure package. This mixed-methods study aimed to evaluate adherence to IPC practices and understand how to improve IPC at the primary care level, where most cases of Ebola were initially presenting. The study was carried out during the national peak of the epidemic. It produced several expected and unexpected findings that were used to guide IPC measures during the epidemic.

This paper explores how the research was conducted. Although many research challenges were similar to those found when conducting research in low-resource settings, the presence of Ebola added risks to safety and security of data collectors, as well as a need to balance research activities with the imperative of response to a humanitarian crisis. A participatory approach that attempted to unify levels of the response from community upwards helped overcome the risk of lack of trust in an environment where Ebola had damaged relations between communities and the health system.

In the context of a national epidemic, the authors conclude that research needs to be focused, appropriately resourced, and responsive to needs. In this case, the partnership between local academics and a humanitarian organisation helped facilitate access to study sites and approvals that allowed the research to be carried out quickly and safely, and for findings to be shared in response forums with the best chance of being taken up in real-time.

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