Christian Aid has scaled up its response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone to target 3.8 million people across the country with potentially life-saving advice on how to avoid contracting the deadly disease.
The charity is working through five local partner organisations and 800 community volunteers, reaching out to communities in 10 of the country’s 14 districts through existing structures set up to deal with HIV and livelihoods.
The aim is to combat widespread community fear and distrust about the disease and its causes which has so far hampered efforts in Sierra Leone to curb the outbreak, and build the confidence of communities to support the Ministry of Health’s response.
Working through the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone (MCSL), Network of people living with HIV (NETHIPS), the SEND foundation, Rehabilitation and Development Agency (RADA) and Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJ), volunteers are alerting communities to basic preventative measures and encouraging them to use local health facilities for early diagnosis and treatment.
Increasing awareness about the signs and symptoms of Ebola, they stress the need for basic precautions such as hand washing with soap and water, and the importance of informing local health ministry officials when people are sick so they can transport them to the local primary health units.
In many remote areas, partners are putting up posters but in some places, where illiteracy is high, such as in Kailahun district where the first cases emerged, community radio is also being used to reach people.
However, while hand washing is key to good hygiene, in remote areas water is not always easily available which is a further problem.
Theresa Bagrey, Christian Aid senior programme officer for community health and HIV, explains: “There is a lot of panic in poor and remote communities. They have been confused by mixed messaging and there is a lot of mistrust in the health system, so the communities don’t always believe what the government is telling them. It’s vital, therefore, to speak to communities through their local and faith leaders, and our partners who are already trusted having worked with them on HIV education and livelihoods projects.”
Another problem is that of stigma, an already familiar obstacle in the fight against HIV. Once a member of a family is diagnosed with Ebola then the whole family is ostracised by the community. The disease is having a real impact on the culture of extended family in Sierra Leone, a culture that means people look after their sick relatives, making it difficult to advise people not to touch their family members who are ill and encourage them to inform the Ministry of Health immediately. Women are also at greater risk of infection as they are often the primary care givers within the family.
Ms Bagrey added: “This situation is very challenging for our partners as it is the first emergency response they have been involved in. The government of Sierra Leone is responding well, but with limited means. They are co-ordinating case management, Epidemiology and laboratory surveillance, prevention control communications and psychological support alongside organisations such as ourselves. There is a lot of commitment from the President and health workers are putting themselves at risk to treat patients.
“The majority of churches in Sierra Leone are taking the outbreak very seriously and seeing it as part of their responsibility to support the Ministry of Health to enforce preventative education."