"I was so scared to die": Living with the fear of Ebola in West Africa

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By Moustapha Diallo, IFRC

The Ebola virus disease is an intimidating disease. It is one of the most virulent viral diseases known to humankind as it can kill up to 90 percent of the people who are infected by it. So when the Guinean government declared an Ebola outbreak in the country in March, the first of its kind in the country, fear and panic spread among communities.

“I was so scared to die,” explains Kamono Faga Moriba, a volunteer with the Red Cross Society of Guinea who lives in Gueckedou, the epicentre of the epidemic where the first cases were reported.

“I am a biologist but I did not know the disease. So I went to the internet to learn more about it as it was the first time it was detected in my hometown and the country.”

A Red Cross volunteer since 2009, Moriba’s role is to assist his communities following a disaster or in a crisis situation including flooding, civil unrest or health emergency. But for Moriba, Ebola was a particularly dangerous and unknown disease for which there is only symptomatic treatment and no vaccine.

“I have seen many people dying in Gueckedou, so I got really scared, not only for me but also for the communities,” explains Moriba. “At one point, I was thinking to abandon my volunteering.”

Instead, Moriba looked inward to overcome his fear as he is one of the Red Cross youth leaders in Gueckedou and as he explains, “a captain should stay on board until everyone is safe.”

The training he received from the Red Cross Society of Guinea, with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), about Ebola and how is it spread, he found very helpful.

He is now one of 400 volunteers trained and deployed by the local Red Cross in affected and non-affected areas to educate communities on how to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the disease. The Red Cross volunteers are also involved in the disinfection of home and health facilities infected by the virus, the removal of dead bodies, and the monitoring of people who may have come into contact with infected persons. They also provide psychosocial support to communities in order to alleviate fears.

“Each time a case is discovered, we send a team of volunteers to disinfect the patient’s home,” says Moriba.

Although they are keen to share messages on how to prevent the spread of Ebola, the volunteers are encountering resistance in some villages such as Bafassa, Wassaya and Tolebengo in Gueckedou, where rumours help fuel the flames of fear.

“People tell us that the humanitarian workers have brought the disease, and that the product they use to disinfect contaminated surfaces is a poison meant to spread the virus. They also say for that several decades they have consumed bush meat without contracting any disease, and question why it is surfacing now,” explains Moriba.

The World Health Organization has said that the fruit bat, which is eaten in West Africa, is likely the natural host of the Ebola virus.

Ignorance and superstition present a big challenge for volunteers trying to educate people about the virus. The Red Cross Society of Guinea is stepping up its communication efforts by training some community leaders in order to establish a trust relationship and stop the chain of infection.

“I hope we will continue to convince them as there were many villages who were resistant in the beginning, but now they have changed their attitudes and practices,” says Moriba. “Sometimes I visit affected villages and, honestly, I am afraid to bring back the virus to my own family, even if I take the adequate measures. With Ebola, you can’t be too careful. My biggest wish is to eradicate the disease in the coming weeks and return to normal life.”

IFRC has launched an emergency appeal in Guinea to support the Red Cross Society of Guinea in responding to the Ebola virus disease outbreak. A main focus of the interventions involves deploying volunteers to communities to raise awareness on how to prevent the spread of the disease and, in the process, address the fear and stigma gripping many communities. The emergency appeal is currently 95 per cent funded. Similar operations have been launched in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone after Ebola cases were confirmed there. Pro-active and preventative operations have been launched in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal which are at risk if the disease spreads beyond other borders.