Health workers in West Africa respond to Ebola outbreak

Health workers from UNICEF and partners visit the crowded Marché Niger to teach families in Guinea to protect against Ebola. Credit: UNICEF Guinea via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Health care workers are joining forces with Catholic charities and local communities in response to a deadly outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

“I've been here 37 years as a missionary and through five wars, and I say to myself, 'I never thought we'd have Ebola now to look at.' But it's what happened and we have to fix it,” said Sister Barbara Brilliant, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary.

Sr. Barbara serves in Monrovia, Liberia, as the national health coordinator for the National Catholic Health Council.

In an April 5 interview with CNA, she detailed the ongoing efforts to fight the disease in West Africa.

Last month, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of the Ebola virus in southeast Guinea. Since then, health authorities have confirmed 72 cases of Ebola, with at least 180 suspected cases of the disease and more than 100 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali.

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever that can kill up to 90 percent of those infected with it. The disease travels through bodily fluids – primarily the blood – causing high fever, headache, bleeding, immune system shutdown and oftentimes internal and external bleeding.

Currently, there is no known cure and no vaccine, though researchers are working on vaccines to prevent the deadly disease. This is the first outbreak in West Africa, with previous outbreaks spread throughout central and eastern Africa since the virus' emergence in 1978.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids including blood and sweat, as well as through the eating of wild animals, such as fruit bats and monkeys, which are considered delicacies in some parts of West Africa.

World Health Organization officials have said in statements that they expect the outbreak to last for several months.

Tim Shenk, press officer for Doctors Without Borders, said his organization is working in Donka Hospital in Conakry, the capitol of Guinea, to help contain and treat the outbreak, and has also set up two structures to provide care for patients in southeastern part of the country.

The organization is also helping to inform communities “about the illness and the precautions to be taken to limit risk of contamination.”

“Basic hygiene – such as washing one’s hands – can significantly reduce the risk of transmission,” Shenk told CNA in a statement.

Doctors Without Borders is also working to reduce Ebola's “very high mortality by addressing the symptoms,” such as by administering fluids to dehydrated patients and offering vitamins and anti-pain medication.

Shenk added that the medical organization “has been working with local communities to ensure that discharged patients who have beaten the virus can return home safely, and that everyone understands they are no longer contagious through hugging, kissing” and other kinds of contact once the patient has recovered from the disease.

Sr. Barbara explained that in Liberia, the National Catholic Health Council is working on education and preventing the spread of the disease from rural areas to other parts of the country.

When the outbreak began, there was “a lot of anxiety,” she said, but the worry is receding with continued education and safety procedures.

The Catholic health group is working in the country's three dioceses and in 18 Catholic facilities throughout Liberia to fight Ebola, and is also working with local community leaders and health professionals to teach the public, “so they understand how Ebola is passed on.”

“You have to have direct contact with those who are ill,” Sr. Barbara said, rather than merely be in the same room to an infected person.

The National Catholic Health Council is also partnering with Catholic Relief Services to help fund personal protection equipment and other medical tools.

In addition, the council is working to put together “standard operating systems” to help decrease infections among health care workers in direct contact with patients, and to encourage hygiene and the use of chlorine and bleach for sterilization.

Sr. Barbara explained that some of the largest challenges will be in addressing certain cultural practices and their contribution to the spread of the disease.

“In rural areas, it's that they eat a lot of bush meat,” she said, adding that certain burial practices that involve handling of the body by the family could also contribute to the spread of the disease.

However, she continued, the National Catholic Health Council is “working with the traditional leaders” as well as “government administrators” to help educate people on the risks of these activities.

Sr. Barbara asked that “everyone would keep us in their prayers” and thanked Catholic Relief Services for their support and outreach.


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