The World Health Organization is continuing its struggle to contain the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It reported July 11 that since the outbreak began in February, there have been 888 total cases and 539 deaths. Recently, numbers have escalated drastically in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Ebola’s most recognizable symptoms are fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea. The virus is highly contagious, and is spread through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person. Ebola is also fatal 90 percent of the time, but there is a chance for survival if the victim can get proper and timely medical attention. Effective treatment for Ebola requires cooperation from West African locals to allow contacting and assessment of suspected cases. If a person tests positive for the virus, he or she must be isolated in a treatment center.
However, locals have recently begun to mistrust the health centers and foreign aid workers. Because so few of the Ebola patients that enter the health centers make it out alive, the locals have started blaming the facilities. They have become so suspicious that they have begun to avoid treatment, chase away health workers and vandalize health centers.
Many villagers, especially in Liberia, do not even believe that the disease exists.
In two weeks, a treatment center in Gueckedou, Guinea went from treating approximately 25 Ebola patients to one suspected case. What seemed at first to be a success story was in fact the opposite. It is almost certain that rather than the disease waning, a considerable number of suspected cases are hiding out in the forest from medical workers.
Villages are now sealing themselves off to prevent health care workers from entering. They have even started blocking roads and tearing down bridges. Locals are either hiding their sick families and friends or seeking out help from traditional healers.
Due to the contagion risk associated with bodily fluids, authorities say the remains of Ebola victims must be disposed of safely and securely in body bags. But, this interferes with West Africa’s traditional methods of burial, in which the family of the deceased must wash and bury the body.
Many locals believe that cadavers are being dismantled and used for experiments or witchcraft rituals, so they try to recover the bodies. In Sierra Leone, authorities even had to fire tear gas to prevent family members from seizing the body bags.
West African governments met at a WHO sponsored event earlier this month and agreed upon a cooperative regional strategy. A key aspect of the strategy involves checkpoints. At roads leading into and out of Kenema, Sierra Leone, authorities have set up checkpoints at which to question travelers and take temperatures.
Yet, people are so afraid of being screened for Ebola and taken to hospitals that now they have begun to avoid the city.
Experts at the WHO and UNICEF say more effort and funding is needed. Misplaced fear within the communities must be addressed before any strategy can have a chance of success.
– Mari LeGagnoux