Burying Ebola’s victims in Sierra Leone

Published: 26 July 2014 13:14 CET

Katherine Mueller, IFRC

They are all young men, in their early twenties who, just a few short weeks ago, would have been studying, going to work at a construction site, or ferrying passengers around on their taxi motorbikes.

Today, they are burying bodies, one after the other, sometimes up to eight or nine a day. This is how life has changed since the Ebola virus disease arrived in Kailahun district, in eastern Sierra Leone.

“Every day we are working. We don’t have a day off and when we get there to the site by eight o’clock (in the morning), sometimes we get back to our homes around 2 o’clock midnight,” says Julius Tamba Kamanda, a 21 year old member of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society dead body management team.

To date, there have been more than 50 official burials, and with dozens of patients at the isolation centre, and more arriving every day, it is likely there will be more.

“These are the deaths we have been informed about,” says Daniel James, team leader Red Cross dead body management team. “More communities are beginning to notify authorities when someone passes away at home, which is great. Calling us and not touching the body will help us control this outbreak. However, there are still many other communities who do not believe Ebola is real, and who continue with the local custom of preparing bodies for burial themselves.”

The dead body management team oversees two types of burials. The bodies they receive from the case management centre are completely disinfected in advance, do not contain any trace of Ebola, and are therefore safe to handle without the full protective gear. “The family is contacted to determine where they would like their loved one buried, back in their community or in one of the newly dug gravesites here in Kailahun town, created just for Ebola victims,” says James. “We are finding that most don’t want their relatives returned, they are still so scared that the bodies are contagious.”

The second type of burial is more complicated and risky, as it involves the Red Cross dead body management team going into a community and preparing the body for burial. It may test positive for Ebola, it may not, but the Red Cross team takes no chances. For their own protection, they wear all of their protective gear, from three sets of gloves, to masks, goggles, coveralls and boots.

“We have the personal protective equipment, the rope, we have the two sprayers. We have six in number (on the team),” explains Kamanda. “Whenever we have touched the diseased we have been sprayed by the sprayer so that we will be protected from the disease so that we don’t bring it to our families.”

They disinfect repeatedly throughout the burial process, always placing the body in two body bags, to ensure there is absolutely no opportunity for the virus to survive. Any contaminated personal items such as clothing, blankets, and pillows are either burned or buried along with the body.

In a country where the majority of rural dwellers live on less than one dollar a day, volunteers on this team receive a daily per diem of 20,000 Leones (5 US dollars). “The money is nice,” says Brima Swarray, who hopes to earn enough to return to school to study public health. “But, in all honesty, I would continue doing this even without the pay. We are helping our communities to kick Ebola out, and that is the most important.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has increased its response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, revising an emergency appeal to provide support to the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society in assisting 6.3 million people who are at risk of being affected by the outbreak. Dead body management is a key component of the response, while other teams of volunteers focus on raising awareness about the disease, monitoring those who may have come into contact with an infected person, and providing psychosocial support to victims, their families, and communities.