NEW YORK – In Liberia and Sierra Leone, Episcopal Relief & Development’s local Church partners are leveraging their widespread presence and trusted reputation to alleviate suffering and contain the Ebola outbreak that has killed 1,427 people in West Africa since March 2014.
Partners in both countries are mobilizing local volunteers to promote accurate information about Ebola and distribute hygiene and sanitation supplies. In addition, the Church in Liberia is supplying food parcels for households in quarantined communities and providing basic protective equipment for health workers at local hospitals.
“The situation is extremely dire, due both to the severity of the disease and the difficulty in containing it,” said Abiy Seifu, Senior Program Officer for Episcopal Relief & Development. “People want to care for sick family members at home, they are afraid to go to the clinics because so many are dying and there is much misinformation about how Ebola is spread. Fear about the disease is making the outbreak worse, and we are aiming to combat this fear with accurate information and support for basic needs.”
Local development staff of the Episcopal Church of Liberia are working with government health staff in Bong County to distribute food items such as rice, cooking oil and canned meat to 500 people in four quarantined rural communities. Volunteers are delivering food and sanitation supplies at the household level, and demonstrating correct mixing procedures for different concentrations of bleach water for hand-washing and cleaning. The supplies also include a hand-washing station made by installing a spigot in a covered five-gallon bucket, and a poster with accurate information about how to prevent Ebola and what to do if a family member presents symptoms of the disease.
Efforts in Liberia also include radio messaging in local dialects through 15 stations in nine counties and the distribution of bumper stickers with key messaging to churches of other denominations.
The shipment of facemasks, gloves, gowns and other protective supplies from Episcopal Relief & Development’s Africa Regional Office in Ghana arrived in Liberia and were given to three area hospitals – Phebe Hospital, Redemption Hospital and C.H. Rennie Hospital – in a commissioning ceremony by Archbishop Jonathan B.B. Hart on August 26.
In Sierra Leone, the Anglican Diocese of Bo is actively participating in the government District Health and Development Team’s planning and implementation process for Ebola control, specifically on detection and case management. Diocesan staff trained local health volunteers who had already been active in the Church’s malaria and HIV prevention efforts to assist with prevention education, case identification and contact tracing. The volunteers also distributed hand-washing stations.
Contact tracing is one of the most important but often most difficult aspects of disease control, especially because the incubation period between when a person contracts Ebola and when they show symptoms can range from two to 21 days. Trusted local volunteers who are familiar with community members and their relationships and daily routines can be extremely helpful, both in identifying cases and contacts, and in encouraging their neighbors to follow the correct procedure when someone is sick or has died, in order to prevent further infection.
“Some of the biggest challenges in stopping Ebola come from hiding sick people and treating them at home rather than seeking isolation and medical assistance, patients escaping quarantine and burial practices that do not contain the disease. Culturally appropriate messaging and case management are essential in encouraging communities to adopt behaviors that will effectively combat Ebola,” Seifu said.
Episcopal Relief & Development is currently in conversation with both the Church of Liberia and the Diocese of Bo in Sierra Leone regarding expansion of activities to reach remote communities and longer-term engagement to address the growing food crisis. Restrictions on transportation and commerce due to quarantine are already causing food shortages, but there may be a longer-term impact on livelihoods and food supply due to lack of market access and missed planting seasons. In addition, families whose main breadwinner has fallen ill or died are particularly vulnerable.
“One of the key strengths of our Church partners is that people know them and they can access areas that might be difficult for other organizations or even the government to reach,” said Seifu. “I am very glad that the local government agencies have recognized this strength and that they can pool resources and expertise to implement a unified strategy. This partnership is important now and will continue to be as the region recovers from this disaster.”