IFRC

Fighting superstition in Congo’s Ebola zone

Published: 8 April 2003 0:00 CET

Didier Revol in Kellé

The Ebola virus hides deep in the equatorial forests of northern Congo. Scientists have searched in vain to locate the origin of the deadly virus. There is no cure. Up to 90 per cent of those contaminated are sure to die within a few days. The kind of behaviour that facilitates transmission is well known by doctors, but poorly understood by the affected population.

Ebola has a strong ally: superstition.

"All these deaths here are the result of poverty and illiteracy," says Dr Virginot Kounkou, head of the hospital in Kellé, the village worst hit by the epidemic.

"It is obvious that the haemorrhagic fever would have caused fewer casualties if we had more schools and health centres in the area. Many think the disease does not exist, that each and every death is triggered by enemies using witchcraft," he adds.

This belief is so deeply rooted that the Congolese Red Cross volunteers with the task of conveying the true facts about the disease often face a discouraging hostility.

Almost three months after the first case was officially registered, one volunteer cannot believe that some of his neighbours still accuse him of spreading the disease instead of fighting it.

In mid-February, at the peak of the epidemic, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. A local sorcerer accused four teachers of killing people to acquire supernatural powers.

According to him, the four belonged to the Rose-Croix, a Gabonese sect. The teachers - all from the same political party - were lynched by a mob wielding iron clubs and machetes.

Most of the terrified population of Kellé fled in the forest. From this time, a dangerous confusion has developed in people's minds: Pink-Cross and Red Cross were seen as indistinguishable, all the more so because in the local Lingala language, the word for red and pink is the same.

With a mixture of fear and duty, volunteers are now reaching remote villages. On 18 March, a team of four volunteers on bikes started an exploratory mission with the aim of reaching the village of Ntsiami, 52 kilometres away and close to the epidemic epicentre. They came back on Saturday evening, exhausted but happy.

"Good news,” one of them, Serge-Justin, declared. "We found no new cases there. Though some places are still completely empty because of the epidemic. That was the scariest part."

Hostility is declining, even in the forest, where traditional beliefs are strongest. "Every elder keeps some fetishes in the secrecy of his home to protect his clan or his family,” explains a volunteer. “When he sees a stranger, his first question is ‘Has he come to destroy my fetishes?’"

But slowly by slowly, the Red Cross sensitization efforts are paying off. People are beginning to realize that a spell could not kill so many people in such a short space of time.

Now, when someone dies or shows signs of bloody diarrhoea or high fever, families are in the habit of calling in the Red Cross volunteers. Relatives and friends avoid touching the sick or the deceased and watch volunteers do their job from a safe distance. The Red Cross is to recruit new volunteers in three districts to increase awareness within the community.

But tradition remains strong. Even if people understand that certain behaviour must be abandoned, other ancestral rites are harder to abandon.

In this part of Africa, family members wash the dead bodies of their loved ones and then mourners throw themselves on them, kiss them and cry in each other's arms. After the burial, people wash their hands in a single bucket of water.

"All of this helps to propagate the Ebola virus," says Gaston Mbela, Dr Kounkou's assistant. "Volunteers keep informing the Kellé population about the danger of such behaviour. But what about the people still hiding in the forest? I am sure they continue to eat gorilla meat and this was how Ebola was transmitted to man."

On Sunday 23 March, five days after the last victim had passed away, joy was abruptly replaced by anxiety. A young man in his early twenties was dying in his mud house.

On site, Steven Callens, a World Health Organization doctor, immediately recognized Ebola symptoms. The patient denied suffering from diarrhoea, even though fluids and blood were covering the ground. Against the doctor’s advice, the young man got off his bed, went to the toilets outside and collapsed. A few minutes later, volunteers came back dressed in their protective suits, removed the body, burned his personal effects and disinfected the house.

"This guy always denied being a contact person even if he had brought back a sick relative on his back from the forest," says Fabienne, a volunteer.

"He hid his sickness till the very end. He must have feared being ostracised from the community,” she adds. “His relatives all say they did not touch him. We know it's a lie. This event proves we still have many people to convince. I can tell you the epidemic is not over."

Related links:

Republic of Congo Ebola Appeal - latest update
Profile of Congolese Red Cross
News story: Volunteers remain steadfast in eye of Ebola storm
News story: Ebola still lurks in Congo's Cuvette region
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