The governments of many West African countries reportedly believe that the current Ebola outbreak could get worse due to citizens refusing treatment for the virus. The epidemic spans several countries, ranging from Guinea (where the outbreak was first spotted four months ago) to Sierra Leone. Despite the severity of the epidemic, health workers have struggled to administer aid due to uncooperative citizens.
Ebola, first detected in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid-1970s, is a disease spread through contact with the blood and bodily fluids of infected persons or animals. It can cause fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea. It is considered to be one of the world’s most deadly viruses, leaving only 10 percent of those who become infected alive.
“We are seeing a lot of mistrust, intimidation and hostility from part of the population,” said Marc Poncin, the emergency coordinator for a medical charity called Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). “What we are seeing are villages closing themselves off, not allowing us to enter, sick people hidden in the community. They don’t come and seek healthcare anymore.”
Citizens have been reportedly going into hiding, believing that a hospital visit is paramount to a death sentence. Health officials have been chased from villages, and in the eastern part of Sierra Leone, officials had to fire tear gas to prevent relatives of the recently deceased from claiming bodies to bury them; interfering with the infected bodies allows for the disease to spread.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 888 Ebola cases have been reported, resulting in around 539 deaths. The WHO has labeled the epidemic as “precarious”. To handle the increasing amount of infections, MSF doubled its number of available beds. Yet, the organization feels that this outbreak could just be the “tip of the iceberg” – the beginning of a much more serious problem.
“If we are to break the chain of Ebola transmission,” said Manuel Fontaine, the Regional Director for West and Central Africa for UNICEF, “it is crucial to combat the fear surrounding it and earn the trust of communities. We have to knock on every door, visit every market and spread the word in every church and every mosque.”
In order to treat people effectively, citizen cooperation with health officials is necessary. According to Poncin, people in Gueckedou, Guinea shun the local center, where around 20 percent of the infected patients survive.
“People see people arrive more or less OK and then they die there. So they start to mistrust the treatment center,” said Poncin.
The same is true for the center in Kenema, located in the eastern region of Sierra Leone. According to Augusta Boima, a Red Cross worker, the people believe that going to the hospital will result in their death.
Many local residents have begun to associate Ebola with witchcraft, while others consider it an evil brought by aid workers. This has led to a clash of beliefs, as it is customary for families in the West African region to wash the bodies of their deceased. However, the bodies of those affected and killed by Ebola are laden with the highly contagious disease.
“For us to now have to give our beloved dead relatives away to people who will wrap them in a plastic bag and dump them in a grave without us washing and honoring them is hard to stomach,” said a Sierra Leone leader.
There are now around 603 Ebola-caused deaths and according to the WHO the situation is only worsening. Eighty-five new cases were reported in the week of July 8, and 68 deaths were reported from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in the past week.
– Monica Newell