Ruth Atkins was the first UK volunteer to receive a new Ebola vaccine in a clinical trial conducted by the Jenner Institute in Oxford. Ruth, who is 49, lives in Marcham near Abingdon and has two teenage children. She now works as Assistant Head for Strategic Communications and Engagement for NHS South, Central and West Commissioning Support Unit - supporting Swindon Clinical Commissioning Group, and was previously an NHS nurse for 31 years.
We spoke to Ruth to find out what motivated her to take part in the trial and how she feels about it one year on.
Q. Ruth, you were the first volunteer in the first UK trial of a new Ebola vaccine. How did this come about?
I first heard about is when I was driving home from work in Swindon. Prof. Adrian Hill was on the drive-time programme on Radio Oxford talking about the Ebola trials and said they were looking for volunteers. I decided to find out more about it and get in touch. Prof. Hill gave an email address which I memorised. I emailed the trial team and soon received a reply telling me what the trial is about and asking if I would like to proceed. I agreed as I thought that if I could do my small part to help, I would.
Q. Your background in nursing means that you are well informed in this area but were there any aspects of the vaccine that made you concerned in any way?
I had not participated in a clinical trial previously but, with my medical background, I knew that they must have completed all the necessary safety checks. I signed relevant consent forms and was informed about all the potential side-effects. Leading up to it, my health checks were all fine but what really reassured me was that I was given a credit-card sized card with a 24h phone number that I could call if I felt at all unwell. I think that clinched it for me, I felt that there was support if I needed it.
Q. How did people close to you react when you told them you are taking part?
My son asked if I die do I have a will and my daughter was just very proud of me.
Q. Did you feel you were doing something very brave?
I was not concerned about the vaccine itself but being the first volunteer there was a lot of media attention. Once the results of the medical check-up were back, I was asked to consider whether I’d be happy with being first. I agreed and was given the vaccine on Wednesday 17th September. I still appear in the news these days which takes me by surprise.
Q. How many visits to the clinic did you have to attend and how disruptive was this to your everyday life?
Within the first week I had to attend daily check-ups and then weekly follow up visits for six months. But I didn’t find it too disruptive as I was able to slot in the appointments around my working hours and the clinical team were supportive and accommodating. The blood tests were not a problem at all, the clinical staff taking blood samples did a brilliant job, I never even felt the needle go in.
Q. What symptoms did you have immediately after the vaccination?
I had no side-effects at all, which was a relief as I did feel in the spotlight with all the cameras surrounding me in the treatment room.
Q. Looking back how do you feel about it now?
I am really glad I took part. I was happy to do my small bit in the fight against Ebola. It also led me to follow more closely the developments within this field and the progress with the trials and I feel that my knowledge on Ebola has increased significantly as a result.
Q. What would you say to anyone considering taking part in a vaccine trial?
I would encourage anyone to take part. The health clearance is carried out first so if you are not fit to receive the vaccine you will not be enrolled. I know that some people are motivated by the financial compensation, but for me it was the fact that I could personally contribute within a safe, controlled environment.