Ebola takes no rest on Sunday

Publicado: 17 julio 2014 12:18 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

Katherine Mueller is the communications manager in Africa for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She has been deployed to Sierra Leone to support the Red Cross response to the Ebola virus disease outbreak.

Finally, a break in the weather this morning. There is still a mugginess to the air, but it is overcast and definitely cooler than the often overwhelming heat of the last few days. It’s Sunday, a day which is usually quieter for families, regardless of where they live in the world. But these are not usual times in Kailahun, Sierra Leone.

Ebola virus disease has invaded this country, spreading not just its deadly reach, but fear, denial and stigma. It is not politics, religion, or tribal feuds which is ripping at the fabric of communities, it is the unknown.

Every morning, teams from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) climb into their land cruisers and head to the nearby treatment centre they have built to treat people either suspected or confirmed Ebola cases. With 65 beds, it is the largest Ebola treatment centre ever constructed. There are plans to expand it to accommodate 100 patients. While the MSF teams work frantically to try and save as many lives as they possibly can, the reality is that by the time people get to the centre, the majority of them are coming here to die. They have simply left it too late to seek treatment This particular strain of Ebola, the Zaire strain, has a 90 per cent mortality rate. Lab technicians at the centre say they have never seen viral loads so high. They have 14 years’ experience researching and studying Ebola. They know what they are talking about.

There is strong cooperation here among those deployed from MSF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society. We all know our roles and are doing what we can to support each other. The strength of the Red Cross lies in its volunteer base. We already have boots on the ground, people who are wanting to get involved. “You are the courageous ones,” a colleague from WHO tells a team of volunteers being trained in dead body management. It’s true. It’s risky business, going into communities where the Ebola virus lives. Yet, that is what Red Cross volunteers are doing.

After receiving proper training, teams are venturing out, trying to raise awareness about Ebola, to let people know how they can protect themselves. Simple messages such as washing your hands with soap, often; avoiding the preparation or consumption of bushmeat for the time being; avoiding close contact with others; and perhaps most importantly, getting to a health care facility immediately at the first sign of symptoms.

Because, it is possible to survive Ebola. Five people have been discharged from the treatment centre after being treated and testing negative. But success depends on people receiving treatment at the first sign of symptoms.

Red Cross volunteers are using various methods to try and reach people. They visit communities and talk with people face-to-face. They were doing community drama, but public gatherings have now been banned so, for the moment, so too is the drama.

Millions of people have been reached through SMS messaging, and during a one hour weekly programme on national radio, Red Cross staff and volunteers take phone calls from listeners who ask questions such as “Why can’t I eat bushmeat? Won’t the heat during the cooking process kill the Ebola bacteria?” and “If Ebola is so deadly, what is the point of going to the isolation centre if we get sick? I would rather die surrounded by my loved ones.”

It is important when speaking with communities that we speak the same language. And in this area, where traditional healers and voodoo practitioners are sought out before hospital health care staff, and where religious leaders carry a lot of weight with their words, it is vital that they too be engaged in the response. With Ebola in town, there is no rest for so many on this Sunday morning.