Ebola, snakes and witchcraft: Stopping the deadly disease in its tracks in West Africa

Published: 24 June 2014 15:06 CET
Konneh, a volunteer with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, is scared after losing three relatives to Ebola. He says many people still do not believe the deadly virus is real. Photo: Cristina Estrada, IFRC

By Cristina Estrada, IFRC

They call him by his surname, Konneh. His manners are gentle and his voice calm. He is a volunteer with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, always willing to help. Although he lives in Kenema, he comes from Daru, one of the villages most affected by the Ebola virus disease outbreak in Sierra Leone.

His uncle and his uncle’s wife have both died of Ebola. First, they brought his uncle to Kenema, a two hour drive from Daru where the treatment centre for Ebola patients is located. He died. Two days later they brought his aunt.  She also died. “His wife was a nurse. My uncle got it from his wife,” Konneh says calmly. His cousin also died.

“When health workers start dying from Ebola, the entire health care system is affected. Doctors and nurses are afraid to go to work or to treat patients, which is what we are seeing in Sierra Leone at the moment,” says Amanda McClelland, senior emergency health officer at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “However, with proper training and by taking adequate precautions, health care workers can safely treat Ebola patients. And it is proven that the sooner treatment can start, the greater the chances of survival.”

Most of the people affected by Ebola in Sierra Leone are women as they are the ones who take care of sick family members and relatives. They are also the ones who care for the body of a person who has died, which is highly infectious if not dealt properly handled.

Overcoming fear, denial and stigma

“I’m scared. Ebola, it’s dangerous. People are saying Ebola does not exist but I’ve seen it. I believe it exists,” Konneh says. There is a lot of fear, denial and stigma attached to the highly contagious disease, as it is the first time it has appeared in Sierra Leone. Some communities are not letting authorities or humanitarian actors enter, while many of those who may have come into contact with the virus and need to be watched, disappear and are, therefore, unable to be traced.

Some believe that Ebola is caused by witchcraft.

One of the most widespread stories related to the Ebola outbreak is this: A woman in a village went on a journey and left at home a box, instructing her husband not to open it. The husband opens the box and finds a snake inside, which informs the husband not to reveal his presence or else the snake will kill everyone in the village. The husband does not heed the warning and spreads the word about the snake’s presence. The snake goes on a killing spree.

Another story that has gained traction around Kenema is that of the doctors in the isolation ward administering lethal injections to people. In the eyes of villagers, this explains why people never come back from the isolation centre.

“If people believe Ebola is real, we can control it. The common people, the illiterate, they only believe in what they see,” Konneh explains.

For those who do accept that Ebola is a real disease, they believe it is fatal and, as a result, do not see the reason for seeking healthcare when they have symptoms. However, to date, ten people have survived Ebola and been discharged from the hospital in Kenema and are back home with their families. “An increase in awareness raising and outreach to communities will be effective in dispelling erroneous stories and beliefs,” McClelland highlights. “Fighting stigma, changing behaviour and seeking hospital care as soon as possible are the key elements to fighting Ebola.”

At the age of 21, Konneh is no stranger to fatalities. He joined the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society four years ago. His father, a regional imam who played an important role in his village, was taken and killed during a time of conflict, along with his  grandfather. “The Red Cross came to my village and took care of us. When they asked who wanted to be a volunteer, I said yes.” Today, it is his turn to help take care of others.

IFRC has released 227,336 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society in responding to the Ebola outbreak. Activities focus largely on educating communities on how they can protect themselves and help prevent the spread of the Ebola virus disease. Similar emergency operations have been launched in Guinea and Liberia. Preparedness operations are underway in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal in the event the virus begins to spread even further.

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