Health officials fighting against the Ebola epidemic suffered another major setback last week, when angry locals looted and raided a quarantine ward in the West Point slums of Monrovia, Liberia. The ten suspected Ebola patients fled the center and some of them later died. Among other things, looters stole contaminated mattresses and blood-stained bed sheets, all the while chanting, “There is no Ebola is West Point!”
This sentiment is not unique to the West Point slums of Monrovia. Many locals from all three countries affected by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa do not believe Ebola exists. This means that they do not watch out for the signs or even think about the possibility of contracting Ebola when engaging in activities that are known to spread the virus. Looters exposing themselves to the virus by stealing contaminated materials gives an example of how lack of knowledge helps contribute to the spread.
Indeed, when it comes to Ebola, knowledge is power. Through knowledge, locals can learn how the disease is contracted, how to prevent it spreading, and what to do if they suspect they or someone they know may have it. It seems however, that there are many obstacles that keep getting in the way for the people of West Africa in terms educating themselves, including, but not limited to; lack of resources, lack of school education, religious and cultural practices, social customs and lack of access to official information.
One of the most common ways Ebola is spread is through family members who live in close quarters. When a family member gets sick, many just assume it to be a regular, non-fatal illness and take care of them in ways such as cleaning up their vomit, wiping their brow, etc. and thereby exposing themselves to the virus.
Traditional burial practices and funerals in West Africa, which are sometimes heavily influenced by religious beliefs and local customs, can also be an issue. The Muslim religion requires that a person’s body be buried on the day they die. In predominantly Muslim countries like Sierra Leone and Guinea, this practice is generally adhered to and, before burial, the body is washed.
In West Africa, funeral custom often involves kissing, hugging and touching the dead body as a way to pay respect and say farewell to the person who the funeral is being held for. Unbeknownst to them, Ebola victims are at their most contagious immediately after death because the viral load is at its highest at that time. People touching the body before burial are at a high risk for contracting the disease themselves.
All four countries affected by the outbreak (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and most recently, Nigeria) are relatively poor and access to official information is limited. In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, less than one percent of the population have access to the internet. Many do not even own a radio. In Nigeria, the situation is considerably better and about one in four people have access to the internet.
According to The World Factbook, any person aged 15 and older who can read and write is considered literate. In Guinea, only 41 percent of the population meets this definition, meaning 59 percent of the population is illiterate. The education level is about the same in Sierra Leone, where 43 percent of the population is literate and 57 percent is illiterate. Literacy rates are a little better for Nigeria and Liberia, both at about 61 percent each. By contrast, 99 percent of the United States population is literate, as are most Western, first world countries.
With limited education and limited access to reliable, factual information, many locals from these countries tend to rely on superstition, tribal gossip and unfounded rumors as their main source of information. This often leads to conspiracy theories and inaccurate assumptions and beliefs.
Coordinators have stepped up education efforts, realizing the only way to contain the Ebola outbreak to give locals the knowledge on how to stop further spread. They have began handing out pamphlets and put up signs to let people know Ebola is real, the symptoms, how it is spread and what to do if they suspect they or a loved one has contracted it. Coordinators have also reached out to respected tribal leaders, urging them to educate their people on the realities and dangers of Ebola and how to prevent it.
The ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not going to end overnight. The disease has spread too far and infected too many for it to end any time soon. Arming the locals with the knowledge needed to stop Ebola from spreading however, may give West Africa hope of ending it.
By Lindsey Dow
The Huffington Post