In the last few days, the media has been awash with speculation that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could reach Britain. Whilst the risk is slight and our effective and well organised health services should be able to handle any threat posed, the level of public interest reflects the fear this terrifying disease inspires.
Imagine then how much more frightening it must be in the communities on the frontline of the outbreak, in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. My colleagues in Sierra Leone tell me people view hospitals in the affected areas as death zones and people who are sick are afraid to go for treatment in case their neighbours suspect they are carrying Ebola.
Talk of enforcing quarantines on whole villages and carrying out door to door searches, actions which effectively criminalise people for falling sick and being scared, only serves to make the problem worse.
Cutting through fear to spread messages of prevention
In the communities where we work, ActionAid is getting the message out that, whilst there is a real need to be concerned, simple effective hygiene and preventative measures can do a lot to reduce the risk of infection and disrupt the spread.
Good hand washing, the use of disinfectants and avoiding physical contact, especially with sick people, all make a big difference. By working with local volunteers and community leaders, we’re making sure these messages come from people whom families trust and are not seen as an outside message from strangers.
We are also working closely with local radio stations, the most common source of news and information in these isolated rural communities. Our aim is to provide consistent factual information about Ebola to people who feel frightened and confused. We are working to fight the myths that surround this horrific virus, helping people to protect themselves and contain it at source.
Economic implications of the Ebola outbreak
At ActionAid we’re also becoming increasingly concerned about the effect this outbreak is having on poor families in the affected communities. With markets closed or slowed down and with the price of hygiene materials like soap and bleach rocketing as demand outstrips supply, the outbreak is having an economic impact as well.
Once the immediate threat is over, thanks to our long term presence in the districts we’re working in, we’ll be able to support people to recover economically from the shock.
The fight against Ebola is far from over
We’re now about half way through our planned 45-day campaign in Sierra Leone, and whilst so far the outbreak in the districts where we are working has stayed relatively stable, we cannot afford to be complacent. Appeal funds from our supporters are allowing us to plan for a continuation of the campaign and to expand our work in other parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia to keep spreading messages of prevention.
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