The world is facing the largest-ever Ebola outbreak as the deadly virus punches its way across three Western African countries, spread through contact with an infected person’s blood or other bodily fluids.
But that is not the only way the disease is transferred from one person to another. In no small part, Ebola is also transmitted directly through myth and fear—which is why Concern Worldwide’s public awareness campaign is front-line work to fight the disease.
First identified in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ebola historically had localized outbreaks with high mortality rates; because of this, the disease was more easily contained and burned out quickly.
Ebola’s latest outbreak, however, has hit Liberia and Guinea, as well as Sierra Leone where I work as the director for Concern’s programs in the country. Every day, the numbers rise of those affected, and those who’ve died. The spread of Ebola has not yet plateaued.
Combating the disease once people are infected is difficult since no vaccine or drug is currently available, so Concern is focused on fighting Ebola before people get sick. In Sierra Leone, where Concern has been working for the last 18 years, we are long-trusted members of the community. This has helped as we have reached out to raise awareness and train village leaders and traditional healers, who in rural communities are often the figures people turn to in times of crisis.
We have also made radio jingles aimed at educating the general public, and we are working to support the country’s over-burdened health care system, providing protective equipment, including aprons, gloves, and masks, to medical workers.
The tightly held myths we seek to dispel include the belief that the disease is politically motivated or spread by NGOs or the government. Some believe if they are diagnosed with Ebola, they will be given an injection in a medical clinic to hasten their death.
This misinformation means that people who are diagnosed sometimes flee, rejecting the treatment that might save their lives, and simultaneously spreading the disease into untouched towns and villages.
People also know if they or their loved ones are diagnosed, they will be put in isolation, unlike other illnesses, where families can gather to care directly for whoever is sick. Eye contact is the only connection Ebola-affected patients will have, since the doctors and nurses attending to them are covered head to toe in protective clothing.
For both children and adults, the prospect of being alone as they fight this disease is terrifying. For healthy relatives, it is hard to accept.
Changing the Culture
As we work with local and national officials to contain the current Ebola outbreak, some of the changes we seek challenge deeply rooted practices or traditions. For instance, eating wild animals normally augments a rural community’s food security. With the Ebola outbreak, eating animals is now potentially deadly if they are infected with the disease.
Additionally, when people die, their bodies traditionally are washed by hand and they are touched during the funeral rites. This also has potential to spread the disease and needs to be curtailed until the outbreak has been stopped.
The Good News
People see Ebola as a death sentence, and we need to let them know it does not always kill. As the number of cases has risen, so, too, has the number of those who have recovered. With quick access to treatment, healthy people with strong immune systems can sometimes survive the disease.
Our work is focused in Freetown, Bo and Tonkolili where we are reaching several hundred thousand people directly. As those we reach share what they have learned with others, even more people are educated, helping to halt the spread of this terrible disease. Knowledge is power, and we are using it to save lives.
* Fiona McLysaght is Concern’s Country Director in Sierra Leone. A trained nurse, she has worked for Concern since 1994 in Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Korea, and Afghanistan.