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Health workers struggle to control West Africa Ebola outbreak

As Africa's worst Ebola outbreak continues to affect Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, SOS teams in West Africa remain vigilant
As Africa's worst Ebola outbreak continues to affect Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, SOS teams in West Africa remain vigilant

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was expected to have declined by now, but fresh cases suggest more needs to be done to communicate the dangers of the disease.

In May of this year, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa seemed to have peaked and most experts expected a decline from then on. Sadly this hasn't happened. New cases have now been identified in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and these have raised fresh concerns that the outbreak is getting out of control. So far, it has claimed the lives of over 340 people and this number could rise further still if authorities are not able to limit the spread of this infectious disease.

As it stands, there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for Ebola and health workers will usually try to keep patients well hydrated to attempt to combat the effects of the disease. However, this usually only eases the symptoms and estimates suggest that the death rate from the deadliest strain of Ebola could be as high as 90%. The best approach is, therefore, to prevent people from catching it in the first place, but limited resources and the scepticism of the local population have made this very difficult.

Overstretched resources make communication difficult

Armand Sprecher, a public health specialist with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Guinea, tells IRIN news that people's unfamiliarity with Ebola has made it difficult to control. Whilst they are likely to seek medical attention for more common illnesses, like malaria, many view Ebola as the result of sorcery, so turn to more traditional medicine. Not only has this made it difficult to record and map cases, but it has also meant that many continue to adhere to traditional burial rituals that exacerbate the spread of the disease.

Sprecher says that MSF is also struggling with limited financial and human resources. This has made it extremely difficult for them to reach remote villages and offer these populations treatment and advice. With more people on the ground they would be able to expand their preventative efforts and communicate more effectively about the dangers of Ebola. As it stands, increased local support is needed to carry out this preventative work.

International collaboration essential to stop spread

Barry Hewlett, an anthropologist at Washington State University, Vancouver, argues that this locally sensitive approach may actually be much more effective. This, he suggests, is because a long history of colonial exploitation in West Africa has made local people mistrustful of foreigners, a trend that Sprecher also notes. However, Sakoba Keita, head of the Disease Prevention Unit at Guinea’s Health Ministry, tells IRIN that even local health workers are faced with hostility. Efforts will, therefore, need to be coordinated if they are to have the required impact.

Encouragingly, government representatives from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have already met with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva to agree how to tackle this crisis. The WHO and its partner organisations have pledged expert support to affected countries and have helped to involve other governments in the region. Though Guinea has been by far the worst affected so far, all countries in the region must take this threat seriously and work together to stop further infections.

None of our Children's Villages in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone have so far been affected by the outbreak. Our teams are exercising increased vigilance to stop Ebola entering the Village and ensure staff and children stay safe. Find out more.

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