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Behind the Ebola crisis

by Amanda McClelland

Tuesday September 2, 2014

Amanda McClelland

If I am honest, I have stopped looking at the tallies of the dead. Numbers don't show you what Ebola is really doing to these communities. But I see the fear and misinformation it spreads. The orphans it leaves in its wake. The 120 health workers who have died while trying to help patients, in countries that already have some of the lowest doctor-patient ratios in the world.

When I first arrived in Sierra Leone five weeks ago, I travelled with the local Red Cross to the infection 'hot zone' near the Guinea and Liberia borders. The volunteers were tired but motivated. Someone asked them: "Why volunteer to manage dead bodies?" A volunteer quickly answered, "If we don't do it, who will?"

Today I was talking to the deputy matron of the hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone's third largest town. Suddenly I heard wailing and crying. Calmly, the matron told me their laboratory technician had just died. Ten minutes later, another health worker tested positive. Total: 33 infected. The deputy matron has worked 93 days straight while 23 colleagues have died. Yet she is still here, for the same reasons as the Red Cross volunteer was: if she doesn't do it, who will?

It is the same reason I am here. Ebola is placing entire health systems on the verge of collapse. Women giving birth and those suffering from malaria or pneumonia have nowhere to go for treatment because clinics are overflowing with Ebola patients. Ebola is about food growers dying and grocery prices skyrocketing. Ebola is about simmering civil unrest and children left behind.

I am here to coordinate the international Red Cross response to the Ebola outbreak. Somehow, amidst the fear and confusion, 2,500 community members have volunteered to help contain the disease. Tragically, dead bodies are the most infectious, which is why so many families are dying and why burying the dead is such hot, dangerous work. I have lost many nights sleep thinking about the volunteers and if they should really be working in this emergency.

There are many reasons why this particular outbreak is so difficult to control and is the biggest the world has ever seen. At the core is lack of trust. People don't believe that Ebola is real, that you can get it by touching someone who has it and then touching your mouth or eyes. They don't believe that the government or health workers know how to stop the spread.

Rumours and misinformation change daily. A religious figure managed to convince a million people that if they got up in the middle of the night and wash with salt water while reading from the Bible, they would be protected.

Red Cross volunteers are from the villages confronting Ebola. They have the trust of their communities. After years of war, Red Cross means something here. It means help, safety and support. We have been able to build on that trust to enter communities that had blockaded their roads, refusing medical intervention. They allow us to bury their dead safely and in a dignified way, despite the lack of tradition that would normally come with a burial. And because of our volunteers we are slowly convincing people that Ebola is real and they can take practical steps to protect themselves, meaning we really can break the chain of infection and contain this outbreak

Ebola is a public health 'perfect storm' in countries recovering from years of war. Governments and lead agencies could have been quicker to respond but this outbreak, in this region, is unprecedented. Fortunately, there is mounting recognition of the scale of this health emergency and the broader humanitarian crisis unravelling. The international community has a responsibility to prevent the deaths and suffering of millions more in the weeks and months to come.

Learn moreĀ or donate to the Ebola Outbreak 2014 Appeal.

Amanda McClelland is a an Australian Senior Emergency Health Advisor with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, currently working in Sierra Leone.

This piece first appeared in the Melbourne Herald Sun 2 September 2014.