Gabon Red Cross battles to hold the line against Ebola

Publicado: 20 marzo 2002 0:00 CET

The Ebola virus may have claimed far fewer lives than AIDS, but the speed and ease with which it spreads among people make the epidemic a terrifying prospect. Gabon now lives in the shadow of that fear.

Ebola - for which there is no known cure and which kills within two weeks - broke out in the north of the country and in the neighbouring Republic of Congo last December. To date there have been 91 confirmed cases and 68 deaths in the two countries - fifty of them in Gabon.

But a small group of sixty Gabonese Red Cross volunteers are fighting back, tirelessly continuing a public awareness campaign and providing psycho-social assistance in the affected area. A similar number are standing by to intervene in the regions of Booué and Libreville if necessary.

The Red Cross and the health authorities are concentrating their efforts on the Ogooue-Ivindo province in northern Gabon, where more than 60 contacts are being followed up. The last two deaths are reported to have occurred in the towns of Makokou and Mekambo.

"The work of the Red Cross is precisely targeted to meet the psychological and material needs of those families directly affected by Ebola," says Gilbert Galley, a volunteer team leader in Makokou.

Once an Ebola case is detected all the belongings of the sick person have to be burned. But Gabonese Red Cross has managed, with Federation support, to replace the household items of 70 affected families with emergency kits comprising a mattress, bed linen, fabric for clothes, a mosquito net, soap and rice.

People who survive Ebola become immune. Unfortunatelly, survivors just like the relatives of those killed by the haemorraegic fever virus, can be ostracized by and even expelled from their communities. In Gabon now, as in past Ebola crises, Red Cross volunteers are in the front line of the fight against stigmatization, providing psychological support to the victims and encouraging sceptical communities to accept them.

"A survivor of the actual Ebola epidemic, a former taxi driver, is now one of the most respected volunteers in the Mekambo area," says Galley proudly. "He speaks four local languages and can influence a lot of villagers."

Meanwhile, a multinational team lead by the World Health Organization continues its surveillance and follow-up work, with Red Cross volunteers facilitating the team's access to the local communities.

Last year, the team was forced to relocate from Mekambo to Makokou because of hostility from the local population. People were being asked to abandon traditional funeral rites, which include washing the bodies of the dead - a dangerous exercise amid an Ebola outbreak. "Red Cross volunteers, with their personal links to the affected villages and their ability to speak local languages, are playing a valuable role in mediating between public health authorities and the affected communities," says the International Federation's epidemiologist, Guy Zimmermann, who just returned from an assessment mission to Gabon and Congo.

People can carry the virus for up to three weeks without showing any symptoms, so an Ebola outbreak cannot be said to be defeated until 21 days have passed without any new cases. The Gabon Red Cross is planning to train more volunteers and has started Ebola prevention and dissemination courses. But no one can let down their guard yet.

Says Zimmermann: "This is the fourth Ebola epidemic outbreak in Gabon since 1994 and more are likely. We must help the population prepare."

The Federation appealed for nearly a quarter of a million Swiss francs to help the Gabonese Red Cross train volunteers, conduct public awareness activities and assist some 60,000 people living in the Ebola-affected region.