Keeping Ebola at bay along West African borders

Publié: 28 juillet 2015 10:00 CET

By Anita Dullard, IFRC

Every day hundreds of people cross the Mano River bridge, at Bo-waterside in Grand Cape Mount county—on foot, in taxis and in trucks. This is the main border crossing between Liberia and Sierra Leone, a well-worn path between the closely connected communities along either side of the river.

Many depend on this crossing to see their kin, to trade, and to make their living.

During the Ebola outbreak though, borders were closed to stem the spread of the deadly and highly contagious disease. This had serious consequences for communities on both sides of the border, impacting family connections, livelihoods, and access to food and commodities.

Mustapha Massaquoi, a Liberia National Red Cross Society social mobilization volunteer, says it was tough for people because they are used to moving freely across the border. “Even myself, I have family on the other side, but we had to do what it took to stop Ebola from coming in.”

When Liberia’s President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson declared the border open again in February 2015, the Liberia National Red Cross Society stepped in to assist in crucial cross border Ebola surveillance and monitoring, as both Sierra Leone and Guinea continued to report new confirmed Ebola cases.

Massaquoi says people were relieved when the border reopened. “People saw it as a sign that things were getting better and we could go back to our normal way of doing things. But they needed to get the message that we are not free yet when our neighbours still have Ebola in their country.”

Even though Liberia has been Ebola-free since early May, in Grand Cape Mount county, Red Cross volunteers continue to conduct active surveillance at check points and in communities on the border, reaching almost 2,000 people daily. Volunteers are active in 16 border communities, doing direct outreach with those communities to promote ongoing Ebola safety measures, and anti-stigma awareness.

Zoe Sanbullah also volunteers with the social mobilization team in Bo-waterside. She explains, “We go house to house to tell our people that when their family comes from Sierra Leone they can talk to them, and encourage them, but still we must do prevention methods—hand washing, staying a safe distance, and reporting any symptoms quickly.

“Many people have family members in Sierra Leone, and people come and go all the time. We tell them that any Sierra Leoneons who come are welcome because they are our brothers and sisters. But we have to be safe and take precautions because Sierra Leone still has Ebola. We are taking care of ourselves until we are free in all three countries.”

During monitoring activities, the Red Cross discovered that Jenemah Town, across the river in Sierra Leone, did not have adequate hand washing stations and other Ebola prevention materials. As part of cross border collaboration, the Liberia National Red Cross Society donated 500 hand washing Ebola buckets, four containers of chlorine, and 50 thermometers to Jenemah town and Pujehum District, which are easier to reach from Monrovia than from Freetown.

Cytirus Kerbay, Red Cross national Ebola response coordinator in Liberia says this donation demonstrates the blurred lines between communities along this border. “Bo-waterside and Jenemah Town are family. It doesn’t matter that there is a line that runs between them. By helping our Sierra Leoneon family, we are helping ourselves. Where Sierra Leone can help us, they do.”

The Liberia National Red Cross Society will continue to work together with both the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society and the Red Cross Society of Guinea on the prevention of Ebola across borders and to address other public health concerns, including malaria, malnutrition, measles and polio. The three National Societies have systems of information sharing, monitoring and active Ebola case search, and continued outreach in border communities to fight complacency, promote self-referral and reporting of suspected Ebola symptoms to health teams, and address community concerns and misinformation.