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Ebola: Information battles fear and stigma

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By Lulu Nellemann, 14, intern for the day at the PS Centre

The West African country Guinea and surrounding countries are experiencing an outbreak of Ebola. The disease is thought to originate from forest animals such as monkeys and bats and spreads to human beings through handling or eating dead animals. Ebola kills up to 90 percent of the infected, though in the current outbreak the rate of fatality is significantly lower. It can be difficult to identify the disease because the early symptoms are rather like flu such as high fever, headache and later vomiting and diarrhea. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, it is necessary to isolate people who may be infected. The isolation period is 21 days, and for many people such a long isolation has severe consequences.

In West Africa the family and community plays an im¬portant role to provide practical, social and emotional support. A long period of isolation from the community and family often leads to sadness and feelings of hopelessness. Isolated people may also feel guilty or ashamed if they feel they are endangering their family or are unable to work to support them.

Faced with dangerous and contagious diseases like Ebola people are often afraid of being infected, and want to protect themselves and those they love. This fear, especially when coupled with poor knowledge about how to prevent the disease, and lack of resources to set up protective measures, can lead to panic and to stigmatization of those who have been in contact with the sick or have been handling dead bodies. This means that those most at risk of experiencing stigmatization and being shunned by the community are health care workers and Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers.

In Liberia, which has so far only seen a few cases of Ebola, psychosocial support delegate, Kirsten Abdallah, met a man who had participated in a funeral of a person who had died from Ebola. The man had been in isolation for 21 days and had been cleared by medical staff. This, however, was not the end of the story for the man and his family, because the community was still afraid of infection, and the whole family was shunned, the children excluded from school. The Red Cross team talked to the minister of the local church, who is a much respected person in the community. The minister then convinced the school to re-admit the children and openly welcomed the family in church, showing the community that there was nothing to fear.

This example demonstrates two major challenges for psychosocial support: Fear and stigma must be reduced and even after medical clearance, it can be difficult for people suspected of infection to resume normal life. Education and information about the nature of the disease, how it spreads – and does not spread – and how to protect against this is an important tool to fight fear and stigma.

As part of a large public information campaign in Sierra Leone, the Red Cross and the Ministry of Health sends out information via sms messages In the mes¬sages they’re giving information on how to prevent the disease, which symptoms it has etc. Here’s an example: “RedCross/MoHS: Wash hands with soap after touching sick people.” Those messages have given knowledge about Ebola to more than 2 million people.