The media have reported a drop in the number of Ebola cases. Does that tie in with what you’re seeing in the field?
"Yes, there are definitely fewer cases, and we’re feeling much more hopeful about the future. The signs are very encouraging, particularly in Liberia, where there’s been a very big drop in the number of new confirmed cases and the President has announced that schools will reopen from February. But we need to remain alert. One badly treated case could lead to a new outbreak. We mustn’t let our guard down too soon. In Sierra Leone, for example, although the situation has improved a lot, there are still around one hundred new cases a week.”
It has been several months since the start of the outbreak. How are people coping?
“People are feeling demoralised because of the very severe restrictions placed on them since last summer, which didn’t lead to a drop in the number of new cases until the last few weeks. The travel restrictions and rules against public gatherings have been weighing increasingly heavily on the population, especially in December, which is traditionally a month of celebration. This year, people couldn’t go home to visit their families, like they usually do, and that just made things even more difficult for them.”
We need to redouble our efforts
“Everyone is really happy to finally get some good news, no one more than us, but there’s also a risk that people are going to start feeling a false sense of security. We need to redouble our efforts so that people who are tired of living under the weight of these health protocols continue applying them, so that we can finally bring the epidemic to an end.”
Poor understanding played a major role in the spread of the virus. Are people better informed now? Has it led to improvements?
“The information campaign has been extremely well organised; people know what’s going on now, and they are fairly well informed about how the virus is passed on. The problems are now being caused by a handful of people who haven’t taken on-board the awareness messages and aren’t approaching this rationally. We need to accept and try to understand this situation so that we can still find ways of reducing the number of contaminations. For example, it’s very complicated to persuade certain communities to give up their funeral rites (which are responsible for more than half of all new contaminations), which involve touching the body of the deceased to wash it and allow the soul to rest in peace.
According to their beliefs, the fate of a person’s soul doesn’t depend on the life they led but on their funeral. These communities are frightened of being haunted by spirits, so they’re reluctant to tell the health authorities when someone dies, because they know the body will be taken away in a black plastic bag.
This has been taken into consideration now and measures have been taken to make the process of taking the body away more acceptable, but in most of these types of cases, the main solution consists in scrupulously applying the protocols regarding the treatment and isolation of sick people who are infectious, and identifying the people with whom they have come into contact.”
Has Handicap International been involved in this work?
“Yes, Handicap International helps by managing a fleet of 30 ambulances which are used exclusively to combat the Ebola epidemic. Each ambulance is accompanied by a decontamination team who spray the places where the infected patient has been with chlorinated water to avoid contaminating his or her family and friends.
We’re also conducting awareness-raising campaigns targeted at people with special needs, including people with disabilities, people with HIV and AIDS, sex workers and children, in fact, everyone who might find it difficult to access information in the usual way. When we talk to deaf and hearing-impaired people, it’s obvious that they are very badly informed. They know something’s happening, but don’t known anywhere near as much about it as the rest of the population.”
People have experienced great hardships
Do you think that the epidemic can be brought under control in the future?
“We need to stay positive. There are fewer and fewer outbreaks in the region. Most new cases are in Freetown, but it still has a population of two million people and there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of health. We’ve got enough money and equipment now, but we still have big problems finding manpower. It’s vital that everyone keeps their shoulder to the wheel to make sure that we bring this epidemic under control as fast as possible because it has already had dire humanitarian consequences and the population really is at the end of its tether. Next, we need to help communities that have experienced great hardship and often been impoverished by the restrictions placed on them.
We also need to provide people who have fallen ill with psychological and social support, and to get all of the country’s institutions up and running again, especially its schools and health facilities.”