In West Africa, Officials Target Ignorance And Fear Over Ebola

Jul 10, 2014
Originally published on July 10, 2014 5:04 pm

There's growing concern in West Africa about the spread of the Ebola virus that has killed hundreds of people. Health ministers have formed a regional response, but fear and a lack of knowledge about Ebola threaten their efforts.

Liberian musicians are joining the campaign, taking to song to educate people about the Ebola virus. Their tune is called "Ebola in Town," and warns people to beware of close contact with those who fall ill. The song warns, "Don't touch your friend."

Since the outbreak was first detected in Guinea in February, the U.N.'s World Health Organization has reported more than 500 deaths there as well as neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Almost 850 cases have been recorded to date.

Ebola is highly contagious through contact with bodily fluids like blood, vomit or saliva. And it's generally fatal. But there is a chance for survival if infected people can get medical attention.

West African government health officials have agreed to a coordinated strategy, aware that a contagious disease will cross borders as people travel for commerce or work. But their effort is hampered by fear and ignorance about the disease.

For example, families sometimes hide relatives with Ebola rather than take them for treatment. They fear the panic and ostracism that the disease may provoke from others nearby.

That's why Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is warning her country that anyone caught hiding suspected Ebola patients will be prosecuted.

"Here, we're talking about a deadly disease — a disease that can kill people. And we're obliged to also protect the lives of people," Sirleaf said. "There's a law that says they must do that. And if they don't, then there are penalties."

Sierra Leone's president delivered a similar warning. Ernest Bai Koroma had been criticized for failing to speak out publicly about the Ebola outbreak in his country. He promised that more would be done to protect those trying to help curb the virus. Medical workers in masks and protective suits often draw suspicion and fear from locals.

"We are increasing police presence around health facilities, to uphold the law and prevent incidents of violence against health workers and vandalization of health facilities," Koroma said.

There have been several incidents of health centers and workers being attacked by the communities they're trying to help.

The disease was virtually unknown in this region of the continent until recently, and regional governments are trying to raise people's awareness.

"We've asked them to stay away from taking people who are sick to prayer rooms, to witch doctors in the bush, to their own arrangements in homes," said Liberia's Sirleaf. Her country is urging families to take the ill to health centers where they can be placed in quarantine and tested to see whether they have Ebola or something else.

Health workers are also trying to change local practices for burying the dead. Families are no longer allowed to wash the bodies in traditional rituals.

Liberia's deputy health minister, Bernice Dahn, recently attended a regional meeting in Ghana to seek a coordinated approach to these issues.

"For the Liberian side, there is a lot of denial. Liberians do not believe the disease exists. Culturally we are mobilizing our chiefs, our committed leaders — and the people listen to their chiefs," Dahn said. "If we can align their leaders to our health promotion activities, they can help be our foot soldiers."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In West Africa there's growing concern about the spread of the lethal Ebola virus. The outbreak was first detected in Guinea this past winter. Since then, the World Health Organization has reported more than 500 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. West African health ministers have formed a regional response but as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, their efforts are threatened by public fear and lack of knowledge about Ebola.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Liberian musicians have recorded an awareness song called "Ebola In Town," which is also being played in other countries struck by the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EBOLA IN TOWN")

QUIST-ARCTON: Don't touch your friend is not strictly accurate advice, but it gets the message across. Take care, Ebola is highly contagious when transmitted through bodily fluids like blood, vomit, and saliva. And there's no cure, but if you take sick loved-ones to a health center for medical attention, they stand a better chance of survival. That's why Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is warning that people will be prosecuted if they're caught hiding suspected Ebola patients, as some are doing because of the panic the virus provokes.

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Here, we're talking about a deadly disease - a disease that can kill people. And we're obliged to also protect the lives of people. And so this is just bringing to their attention that there's a law that says they must do that, and if they don't, then there are penalties.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sierra Leone's president delivered a similar warning earlier. Ernest Bai Koroma had been criticized for failing to speak out publicly about the Ebola outbreak in his country. He promised that more would be done to protect those trying to help curb the virus, which Doctors Without Borders says is out of control. There have been several attacks on health centers and workers by local communities they're trying to help who are mistrustful and frightened of people wearing face masks and full-length protective clothing, despite awareness campaigns about a virus that was virtually unknown in the region until recently. Traditional and cultural practices are causing fear and suspicion among local people. Again, Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf.

SIRLEAF: We've asked them to stay away from taking people who are sick to prayer rooms, to witch doctors in the Bush, to their own arrangements in homes.

QUIST-ARCTON: Customary ceremonies surrounding burials are just one example of the clashing cultures facing families who lose relatives to Ebola. They're no longer allowed to wash the bodies in traditional rituals and they want to know why. Liberia's deputy health minister Bernice Dahn was recently at a regional meeting to seek a coordinated approach to these issues. She spoke about her own country.

BERNICE DAHN: For the Liberian side, there's a lot of denial. Liberians do not believe the disease exists. Culturally we are mobilizing our chiefs, our committed leaders - and the people listen to their chiefs. So if we can align their leaders to our health promotion activities, they can be our foot soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "EBOLA IN TOWN")

QUIST-ARCTON: Officials and relief workers worry that with fragile health systems and the free movement of traders and travelers across West Africa's poorest borders, it'll be tough to stop the Ebola spreading in the region. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "EBOLA IN TOWN")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.