As Ebola continues to ravage West Africa, Oxfam has mounted a $34 million campaign to keep the deadly virus from spreading.
Key to the effort are teams of community health workers, trained by Oxfam, who are now fanning out to teach their neighbors about the signs and symptoms of the disease, how to prevent it, and what to do if a family member becomes infected. Sierra Leone's Mary Kamara is among those on the frontlines of prevention.
"I'm a housewife, but I volunteer to do community health work because of our people—to save their lives," she said. "Thousands are dying from Ebola. I know one of my friend's family—about 10 of them, they are all dead in one house."
While the disease is transmitted through direct contact with sweat, blood, and other body fluids from someone who is already symptomatic, mistrust, rumors, and fear have fueled Ebola's spread, discouraging some family members from reporting new cases as their kin fall sick.
To help counteract the rumors, Oxfam is hitting the radio, plastering billboards, and pushing out text messages with information on how people can protect themselves from catching the virus. But more needs to be done to listen to people's fears and convince them that there are ways to stop the spread of this terrifying disease.
Soap and water as prevention tools
Ebola has now killed nearly 5,000 people, with the World Health Organization warning of a dramatic spike in cases by December if steps aren't taken immediately to fight the disease by increasing the number of fully equipped isolation and treatment centers and staffing them with doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.
Hand in hand with that surge is the need for widespread public health information—and access to clean water and soap—to help prevent the spread of the disease. Oxfam's campaign, which has already reached 430,000 people, is targeting five countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea Bissau. We are providing water supplies at some of the treatment and isolation centers and establishing hand-washing facilities in public areas. We are also distributing hygiene kits—with soap and bleach—to communities and providing personal protective clothing for community health workers and burial teams.
"We make sure we tell even the kids, after playing, you wash hands with soap and water," says Alima Jamboria, a community health worker in Sierra Leone's Freetown. "I have love for the community. They do listen to me and your relationship with the people is very, very important."
Among those glad for the straight talk is Moriba Bangura.
We feel good because this is the first time we have seen people talking to us about Ebola," said Bangura during a visit by Oxfam-trained community health workers. "They say it's a virus. If someone is sick, we should report to the hospital. They say we should not touch dead bodies, even if it's our husband. We should not attend funerals."
Having to forego important community rituals and are just some of the sources of suffering Ebola has caused. Its march through West Africa has also begun to have an economic impact and could heighten the fragility of some countries.
"The road to my business place in Liberia has been closed," says Mabinti Koroma, who has lost three family members to the disease and has seen her business suffer. "Even my husband who is a carpenter is not having contracts any more. My six children are all just sitting at home idly."
Many schools have been closed for months and students are missing out on their educations. The disease has prompted governments to close borders, which is affecting crucial cross-border trade. Harvests have been disrupted and there is less local food in the markets. What there is has become more expensive. The World Bank estimates that the outbreak will cost Sierra Leone 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product—or $163 million—in 2014. In Liberia, the estimated cost for 2014 is $66 million. And those numbers could rocket if the epidemic spreads.
"We need reputable organizations like Oxfam to come on board and tell people that the disease is here but if we do A, B, C, and D, we can contain it," said Stephen Bockarie Mansaray, a radio host in Sierra Leone. "I think information is key in the fight against Ebola."
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