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Ebola workers face attacks

Philipp Sandner / cmFebruary 18, 2015

Nearly one year since the Ebola epidemic broke out in Guinea and later spread to other West African nations, frontline health workers still come under attacks. Lack of awareness and cultural beliefs are to blame.

Image: Reuters/James Giahyue

Health workers from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society continue to play an important role in dealing with the West African Ebola epidemic. They assist and care for the sick, as well as carry out the dangerous task of burying Ebola victims.

However, Guinea's Red Cross has continously shared reports of repeated attacks on its staff and volunteers. "These attacks range from verbal abuse to physical," Moustapha Diallo, spokesperson for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Guinea, told DW in an interview.

Last week, two volunteers were beaten as they tried to organize a funeral. The Red Cross reports that this is only one of about ten incidents per month. "It is really unfortunate that there are still rumors making the rounds that foment distrust and fear," says Diallo. That's despite the fact that the epidemic has been rampant in West Africa for almost a year.

Some believe Ebola workers are helping to spread the epidemic further. Such rumors complicate the fight against the deadly virus and at times lead to various communities being cut off from receiving crucial help, according to the Red Cross.

Rumours versus facts

Since the crisis began in March 2014, the Red Cross in Guinea has played an important role in sensitizing people on ways of Ebola virus transmission as well as prevention . But it has been very difficult says the Red Cross spokesperson. "Rumors spread faster than facts."

Whereas the number of new infections is not as high as during the peak of the outbreak, Liberia has reported a gradual decline. Guinea and Sierra Leone have seen an increase since the end of January according to the World Health Organization. 65 people in Guinea were infected with the virus in the week ending February 8, in Sierra Leone 76 caught the Ebola virus.

A man disinfects a colleague wearing a hazmat suit for Ebola work.
Apart from attacks, Ebola workers have to deal with the risk of infectionImage: European Union/Kenzo Tribouillard

Resistance to Ebola awareness campaigns is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs. Family plays an important role in all three affected countries in West Africa. But the necessary precautionary measures which include the isolation of Ebola-infected persons and those who show suspicious symptoms have dented the family image. Furthermore cremation of Ebola victims – a vital element in stopping the transmission of the Ebola virus was previously unthinkable to Muslims in Guinea.

According to Badicko Diallo, a journalist who spoke to DW, the fact that people who have lost relatives in Ebola treatment centers never get to see their bodies again, helped fuel prejudices making the rounds.

Misinformed cities

Even cities have not been spared the prejudices, says the journalist who works for the FM Bolivar radio station in Mamou, a town in central Guinea. "The epidemic first gained a foothold in the forest regions of Guinea. In some cities, there was still no single case."

People in the cities became unsettled due to misinformation. In remote areas, there were other problems. They could not receive any reliable information because many of the national and international anti-Ebola teams refused to set foot there out of fear for their own safety. It became a vicious circle. "The rural population started basing everything about Ebola on rumors which they received from all sides," Diallo says. Their response then became avoiding anything that has to do with Ebola – inlcuding the awareness campaigns.

A woman receives an Ebola vaccine trial in Liberia
Ebola eradication campaigns including a vaccine trial have been hit with misinformationImage: Reuters/J. Giahyue

The World Health Organization is now focusing increasingly on the help of the media. "If you send people into the population who they do not trust, failure is inevitable," says journalist Diallo.

The focus is now on a proposal to send people who carry responsbility and authority to different regions. "Go to the mayors and the Imams, train them to spread the message." According to Diallo, villagers would hardly attack an imam or mayor.

Work must go on

The Red Cross is used to working with members of the local communities. But still comes under attacks - some of them fatal. In January, a mob killed a police officer and his driver on the pretext that they wanted to spread the virus.

An Imam preaches to faithful in Guinea
Imams and other community elders now play a key role in awarenessImage: CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images

Dozens of similar cases are now in court. Whether that will act as a deterrent for further acts of violence is yet to be seen. What is certain though is that the Ebola fight of which the Red Cross is actively engaged in will continue.

"We do not condemn the population," said Moustapha Diallo of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Guinea. "We will explain, explain and again explain to counter the lack of understanding which has become an obstacle in defeating this epidemic."