By Kim Pozniak
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is responding to the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has so far killed more than 1,000 people. CRS is working in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone on information campaigns to increase awareness of Ebola prevention and debunk myths about the illness that has hindered efforts to contain the outbreak in some places.
CRS is working with local leaders, community elders and the Ministries of Health in all three countries, distributing posters, fliers, fact sheets and other materials with educational information. CRS has also partnered with local radio stations to broadcast regular public service announcements in local languages, in addition to daily radio panel discussions with local health officials and community leaders that allow listeners to call in to voice their concerns and receive feedback. CRS has conducted public education campaigns in 56 communities since April.
EBOLA IN FOUR WEST AFRICAN COUNTRIES
Ebola was first confirmed in West Africa in March and has since spread to four countries: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. It is the deadliest Ebola outbreak since it was first discovered in 1974, prompting the World Health Organization to call it an international emergency. Several countries have declared a state of emergency and there are fears it could spread further.
In Sierra Leone, two entire districts have been quarantined, and any movement in and out of two major towns is prohibited. Commercial access is still allowed with a special government permit to maintain a supply of food and other essential goods.
“People can move freely within the districts of Kenema and Kailahun. They can access markets and buy food. Supermarkets and street markets are still functioning normally,” says Sasha Veljanov, CRS acting country representative in Sierra Leone. “But people are concerned about price increases for food and other commodities. Prices for staple items like palm oil for cooking, salt and rice have already increased by 25 percent.”
“WHEN IT HITS YOUR FAMILY, IT’S REALLY HARD”
In Liberia, the situation is “very alarming,” according to Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas. The president has declared a state of emergency for 90 days, and 8 of 15 counties have been hit by Ebola, including capital Monrovia.
“When it hit the Catholic hospital [in Monrovia], it came home to us,” Bishop Karnley says. “When it hits your family, it’s really hard.”
The bishop attributes the difficulties of containing the outbreak to a lack of experience and the necessary infrastructure to safely treat the symptoms of Ebola.
And in Liberia, too, the government and Church are “working vigorously” to educate the population about the disease. “Superstition has worked against the education process,” Bishop Karnley says. “Some believe Ebola is an invention by the West, or a gimmick to attract international donor support. Often, people can’t come to terms with the fact that a family member dies when they can’t perform their last rites at burial.”
Ebola spreads through human-to-human transmission by direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. In West Africa, customary burial ceremonies include family and community members washing the body of the deceased and having a religious or community leader preside over the funeral, all of which puts those closest to the deceased in direct contact with their body when it is at its most contagious. Traditional healers, spiritualists and religious leaders are still an important part of how people in West Africa take care of their health and respond to illness and, in this case, many people see it as natural to seek healing, support and comfort from traditional and religious leaders.
Bishop Karnley recognizes that educating people on how to protect themselves from the virus is key to containing the outbreak but says that “when more people can interact and are connected, those myths will be dispelled; otherwise information is distorted as it travels.”
CRS RESPONDING IN THREE COUNTRIES
CRS continues to respond to the outbreak in the three countries, supporting our local partner, Caritas, to educate religious leaders about the disease and prepare them to act as advocates in their communities. The goal is to help families and communities understand the virus and the actions necessary to prevent it from spreading.
“This is the first time Ebola has been seen in these countries, so it took everyone by surprise,” Veljanov says. “We keep monitoring the situation daily and are committed to take every possible measure to protect and assist our teams on the ground.”
In Liberia, Bishop Karnley calls the Ebola outbreak the “biggest crisis since the civil war,” that ended a decade ago after 15 years of fighting. “We are saddened that we have lost lives and it has thrown the country back in a reverse mode. But I hope it will challenge us to improve the health sector and create a long-term response to any form of health risk.”
Kim Pozniak is Catholic Relief Services’ communications officer for Sub-Saharan Africa. She is based in Baltimore.
From NPR – Amid Ebola’s Spread, One Rules Reigns: ‘Don’t Touch’
Ebola Crisis Update: CRS Responding in Three Countries
Vatican Radio: CRS Responding to Ebola Outbreak and Fighting Fear Surrounding It
NPR: Ebola 101 – The Facts Behind Fighting a Frightening Virus