Is it Ebola or fear-bola? That’s the question Concern Worldwide, the Irish international humanitarian aid group, is asking this week.
“I understand that this is an emotive subject but we have teams on the ground that are dealing with this crisis all day every day,” Concern spokesperson Kieran McConville told the Irish Voice this week.
“In relation to how it has made its way to the US and how it’s being perceived here, all I can say to that is it is incumbent on people everywhere to educate themselves about the challenges and precautions.”
To respond to the growing crisis in West Africa the well known Irish aid agency is currently recruiting logisticians, health care professionals and engineers based here in the US and in Ireland to travel over immediately.
“We work in Liberia and Sierra Leone – the two African nations hardest hit by the virus – and we have been established there for quite some time. Obviously the Ebola crisis has had a huge impact on the work that we do, so a lot of our resources and attention have been turned toward dealing with it,” McConville explains.
“Just today we are recruiting logisticians, engineers and health care professionals to travel over. There’s a set of procedures and training that they go through before they go in relation to protecting themselves. It mostly a one-way flow at the moment as we search for people with professional training to work there because the need is huge.”
Poverty has been a major contributing factor to the spread of the virus, but that’s rarely discussed in the often panic-stricken media coverage this side of the Atlantic. “You’ve seen Bob Geldof say it to the media,” says McConville. “Ebola is more than a virus; it’s a symptom of poverty and a lack of access to health care.”
There are related challenges to contend with too. Both Sierra Leone and Liberia have suffered from destructive civil wars from which they’re still trying to recover and the health systems there are not well resourced.
“Sierra Leone already has one of highest child mortality rates in the world. One in ten children there won’t reach their fifth birthday and will likely die of a preventable disease. It’s a result of poor nutrition and a wider lack of access to health care.”
Although Concern is not a frontline medical organization, they have found themselves stepping into a much greater medical role as the crisis spreads. “Concern has taken over management of the burial teams in the capital of Freetown, Sierra Leone,” McConville says. “We are also working in relation to isolation centers where people go whilst awaiting treatment. We’re helping to manage the command center, which manages phone calls from people seeking assistance and organizes the ambulances. We’re very much involved with the logistics of that and we’re scaling up our involvement all the time.”
It is the largest ever outbreak of the virus in Africa to date, which has a fatality rate of up to 90%, but it’s misconceptions rather than information that contribute to the virus’ transmission, McConville says.
Responding to the challenge this week Concern Worldwide announced a $46 million program on Monday to address the spread of the virus. “In any of our offices in Liberia or Sierra Leon you won’t get through the front gate without having your temperature checked. If you are displaying symptoms you’ll be advised to go to a treatment center. We don’t take this lightly.”
Educating the general public about precautions they can take to prevent contracting it – and what they need to do when someone does will be key. “It’s been an extensive information campaign and we’ve used a lot of community-based volunteers that we work with on other projects to spread as much information as we can,” says McConville.
“People need to realize that the most important thing is to be informed about the virus and how its transmitted. The World Health Organization is one of the best sites to find out about it. Information is the key.”