Moustapha Diallo, IFRC
Fear and stigma are often common human reactions to a disease, in particular when it comes to Ebola, a highly infectious disease which can spread quickly and for which there is no known cure.
In Guinea, a west African country, which is currently experiencing a rampant spread of Ebola cases, fear and stigma related to the disease are becoming increasingly visible. Many residents are limiting their movements, refusing to venture too far from their homes. “This is a common reaction,” says Amanda McClelland, emergency health officer with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “When Uganda experienced an Ebola outbreak in 2012, we met people whose family and friends were scared of them because they were being monitored as possibly carrying the virus. No one could touch them. They were avoided, even after they recovered. It is this kind of fear and stigma which we must address immediately.”
As of 29 March, 77 people had died in Guinea after being diagnosed with the virus. Out of a case load of 122, that translates into a mortality rate of 63 per cent. Over the past few days, the deadly outbreak has spread from the southern parts of the country, the epicentre of the disease, to the capital Conakry. Liberia has now confirmed two cases, and there are suspected cases in neighbouring Sierra Leone, prompting Senegalese authorities to close their land borders with Guinea, in an attempt to prevent further spread of the disease.
“People have never experienced anything like this before, in Guinea as well as in West Africa,” says Dr Facely Diawara, head of the health department at the Red Cross Society of Guinea. “The fact that Ebola is a new disease in this region which is highly infectious and contagious, also contributes to the fear and stigma attached to it.”
With support from IFRC, the Red Cross Society of Guinea is working closely with the Ministry of Health, WHO and Médecins Sans Frontières to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Trained Red Cross volunteers are working in affected areas, identifying and tracking those who have come into contact with suspected cases, disinfecting the homes of Ebola victims, and raising awareness among communities on how to protect themselves from becoming infected.
“Our major focus is to stem fear and stigma by helping people to avoid panicking. That’s why we are stepping up our communication by providing communities lifesaving information so they better understand the disease and know how to protect themselves,” says Panu Saaristo, coordinator of emergency health at IFRC and leader of the Field Assessment and Coordination Team deployed to Guinea.
Avoiding direct contact with people carrying the Ebola virus is one of the key measures used to reduce the spread of the disease. But this also has a negative effect as people who suffer from other severe illnesses like malaria are sometimes admitted into isolation as a precaution. But when they recover and are discharged, the community still believes they were actually being treated for Ebola and could still be contagious. Fear of being marginalized or isolated may also cause people to conceal their illness.
Survivors of Ebola who have had family members die, also suffer from stigma. Even after they recover and are discharged, the community still believes they have contracted the Ebola virus and do not want them in the market, in their house or places of worship.
“Families which are affected must get proper treatment, but after they have recovered or are declared free from the virus, they need the community’s support to return to normal life. This is one of the messages that Red Cross volunteers are giving to the communities,” adds Saaristo.
IFRC has released 142,102 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support at-risk communities in Conakry, Guéckédou, Kissidougou and Macenta. Aside from raising awareness among communities on how to prevent the spread of Ebola, Red Cross volunteers are also providing psychosocial support to families affected by the outbreak, and are assisting in the management of dead bodies.
In neighbouring countries, Red Cross National Societies are also on alert, in the event suspected cases are confirmed and a response needs to be launched.