Social behaviors, including hunting for bushmeat and hiding the sick at home, are critical factors in the spread of Ebola virus in West Africa. A state of emergency has been declared in Guinea, and its borders with Senegal and Sierra Leone have closed in an effort to stop the spread of the deadly virus.
Sierra Leone has closed its land borders with neighboring countries as well, and law enforcement officers there have begun imposing jail time on those who harbor Ebola patients. However, these preventative measures can have unintended consequences: The close quarters of a jail can help the disease spread faster from person to person and closed borders hamper the transport of needed food and medical supplies.
Wildlife serves as a reservoir for the Ebola virus, and the virus spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids. A general lack of knowledge and understanding about these aspects of the disease has allowed the disease to continue to spread from country to country very rapidly because the local people continue to put themselves in direct contact with wildlife and expose themselves to bodily fluids from the infected.
The hunting and butchering activities associated with the popular bushmeat trade puts people in direct contact with animals that could harbor the virus and facilitates its transmission from animal to human. The extreme social stigma associated with having the Ebola virus disease motivates families to hide sick loved ones at home rather than seek treatment. The persistence of these social behaviors is causing the disease to spread.
Local officials in the hardest-hit countries report that the estimates of those who have died or are infected are not accurate because the act of hiding sick family members at home is so widespread. Not only is there a social stigma associated with contracting the Ebola hemorrhagic fever, but many local people believe the isolation facilities where the sick are sent for treatment will make their loved ones worse and cause them to die.
With such strong cultural and social behaviors in place, Ebola will continue to spread from lack of knowledge about how the harvesting of bushmeat and hiding the sick at home are contributing to the spread of the disease. Public Health campaigns to fight Ebola effectively will need to address bush meat hunting and harboring sick individuals head on, yet difficulties disseminating the information abound because the illiteracy rate in West Africa is one of the highest in the world.
According to a study conducted jointly by the African Network Campaign for Education for all (ANCEFA), the African Platform for Adult Education (Pamoja), and the non-profits Oxfam International and Action Aid, 40 percent of the adult population of West Africa can neither read nor write. More than one-third of adults in Sierra Leone are illiterate, and 29 percent of the population in Guinea cannot read or write.
Not only does the illiteracy rate pose a barrier to disseminating public health information, it poses a barrier to changing behaviors as well. Bushmeat hunters will not change their activities unless they have another economically viable alternative, and business opportunities are limited for those unable to read or write.
The challenge of mounting an effective public health campaign is further compounded by the intensity and immediacy of the crisis. Because the epidemic is active and growing, all available resources are being directed toward emergency functions. However, stopping the spread of the disease is also an important part of managing the crisis. Because Ebola spreads from social behaviors including bushmeat hunting and hiding the sick, those behaviors must begin to change before the spread of the disease can be stopped.
By Lane Therrell