Sunday, 11 January 2015

Ebola Myths

I thought I would share a few myths about ebola that I’ve heard about since being here… thanks to Ibby (Fixer), William, Patricia (nurses), housemate Katie and night nurse Tamba for helping me compile this little list:

1) Initially nobody thought that ebola was real. Everyone thought the government was making it up so that they could invite more NGOs, agencies and funding into the country and make hefty profits for themselves.

2) Quote: “A witch-craft was flying over the provinces and crashed into Port Loko (a large town) causing a lot of deaths all of a sudden.” I don’t even know what to make of this - is it a bird? is it a UFO? No, it's a witch-craft! In fact, of course, these deaths were actually due to ebola but the local people’s strong traditional beliefs were the only thing that could explain such a catastrophe. Lots of people in West Africa seek traditional healers (‘herbalists’) before attending formalised medical care. One thing the local nurses here pointed out is that this means literally hundreds of the traditional healers have died from ebola during this epidemic.  Practices and knowledge are passed down by elder generations within families so this loss will surely impact the availability of traditional healers in the future, especially in the provinces. Although the nurses seem to think that this will not diminish people beliefs. Currently we are seeing a hotspot of cases in Waterloo, a suburb of Freetown, where there is a strong dependency on traditional healers.

3) All the patients that were taken to the hospitals were found to be ‘positive’, in contrast to those who were sick and died at home.  So began the association with white doctors working in facilities and confirming ebola cases which was mis-understood as white doctors giving people (i.e. injecting) ebola. This spread a deep mistrust amongst the community and increased the fear of attending hospitals.

4) In August, a well renowned pastor from Nigeria had a vision that if all people bathed in hot water and salt before daybreak they would be protected from catching ebola forever. Apparently, it was attributed to a quote from the bible about being cleansed of sin by washing in salt water. The message was spread quickly across the country; bellowed out from all the radio stations, repeated at church services, loud-speakers, whatsapp messages – you name it… resulting in the whole country wanting to get their hands on some salt. Will told me that in Kenema people turned up at the treatment centres with huge kilo packets of salt to ‘cure’ the patients. In fact, just last weekend, I came across remnants of this rumour myself. Amar (a Kings colleague) and I were at the beach for the day and we took a boat trip up river to a small waterfall with a man called ‘Heavy D’. He proudly told us that there was no ebola in his village “because we live by the sea”. Obviously I questioned him on this, trying to warn him that was not the reason and he still needed to take precautions if anyone became sick, when Amar pitched in to explain his thinking was related to the salt-water message from August. I find it so worrying how inaccurate information can cause such long-lasting false beliefs. It reminded me of the crazy rumour in Zimbabwe and South of Africa that “having sex with a virgin cures AIDS”.

5) A (almost) funny and verging on ridiculous rumour I heard yesterday was about how Medecin sans Frontieres are screening for ebola at their isolation units. Just as background, our screening process involves asking every patient that attends the hospital whether they have a fever, or history of fever, in the last 3 weeks – if yes: they are asked a whole list of symptoms (vomiting, diarrhoea, weakness, abdo pain etc), if no: they are asked if they have any contact history with sick people, dead bodies, burials etc. In contrast, night nurse Tamba told me his friend works for MSF in Freetown and their screening process is completely different. According to Tamba’s friend, they give a suspect patient a peanut and wait 5 minutes. If he vomits then he probably has ebola and is isolated. If he doesn’t vomit he’s probably fine and allowed home! I tried exposing the absurdity of this screening process to Tamba,“do all patients with ebola vomit?” No! Even so, he still believed his friend and not me.

And so the rumours continue…

2 comments:

  1. Hi Claire. Another wonderful blog. Your comments and thoughts are fascinating. I pass them to an elderly retired missionary who is fascinated and has many stories about medical services in rural areas in the 80's. We think of you and your colleagues often and hope you will enjoy your much deserved break. Take care Anni x (Caitlin's Mum)

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