C.R.S. Fights Fear and Ebola As Crisis Worsens in Sierra Leone

As people in Sierra Leone lose hope and worldwide fear grows over the worst Ebola outbreak on record, “Our situation is desperate,” says the Rev. Peter Konteh, executive director of Caritas in the Archdiocese of Freetown.

On July 30 Father Konteh described the mood of the West African country as bleak following the death the day before of Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, the physician who had been leading the country’s fight against the highly contagious disease. The loss of Khan, who worked at the Kenema Government Hospital in eastern Sierra Leone until he also fell victim to Ebola, “has left us feeling defenseless,” Father Konteh said. He added that the hospital center Khan ran is the only place in the country equipped to deal with the disease. “Our health system is not strong enough to cope with this,” he said.

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Father Konteh said Ebola has had “ripple effects on all interactions.” Many people’s livelihoods depend on trading at big marketplaces, “but they are staying away now.” In eastern Sierra Leone, some schools closed and postponed examinations indefinitely.

Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency on July 31 and called in troops to quarantine Ebola patients as the death toll hit 729 in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Symptoms of the disease, which has no known cure, include vomiting, diarrhea and internal and external bleeding. The fatality rate of the current outbreak is around 60 percent. Two American medical workers who had become infected in Liberia were airlifted to Atlanta for treatment.

Michael Stulman, regional information officer for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, said cultural traditions, including the washing of a body by family members before it is buried, are contributing to the spread of Ebola. The disease is at its most contagious in its advanced stages.

Speaking by phone from Freetown on July 31, Stulman said dispelling myths that are contributing to the crisis forms a large part of the work that C.R.S. is doing. Staffers are training elders and traditional leaders to spread information on how to avoid contracting the virus and what to do if they feel sick, said Stulman. C.R.S. has been working closely with Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Task Force on awareness-raising campaigns, using radio and other media to disseminate critical messages about prevention, transmission and treatment of the disease.

Father Konteh represents the Catholic Church on the task force. He said some local people fear that if they go to a hospital “they won’t come out again.” He explained that the bodies of people who die of Ebola in hospitals “are put into bags and buried, and their loved ones don’t see them again; there is no burial ceremony.”

Father Konteh said that an interreligious forum issued a statement to counter disinformation “spread by religious fanatics saying it’s a plague and calling on people to come to prayer centers they’ve set up instead of health care facilities.” C.R.S. also had to clarify the nature of Ebola to people who believe that the hospital deaths are the result of a political plot by antigovernment forces, according to Stulman.

While many international organizations are leaving Sierra Leone because of the outbreak and the U.S. Peace Corps is evacuating hundreds of its volunteers from affected countries, C.R.S. has no plans to pull out. “We’re sticking around,” Stulman said, noting that C.R.S. has been working “on the frontlines” in Sierra Leone for more than 50 years and has built strong partnerships with local organizations.

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