VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church plays a fundamental role in responding to the worst outbreak of Ebola infections in history, according to a Holy See official involved with the efforts.
“The Catholic Church manages health facilities, and so it will be able to care for Ebola-affected people whenever the structures have the capacity to keep the infected people in isolation,” Msgr. Robert Vitillo told CNA.
Msgr. Vitillo is special adviser to the Rome-based Catholic relief organization confederation Caritas Internationalis on HIV/AIDS. He also heads Caritas’ delegation to the United Nations in Geneva and collaborates with the Holy See.
He said that the Catholic Church is working on three levels to help respond to the epidemic: the cure of infected people, preventive education to avoid a pandemic and pastoral education.
According to World Health Organization data, 932 people have died from Ebola, out of 1,711 people infected in the latest outbreak. In Liberia, 516 people have been infected, and 282 have died; in Nigeria, nine have been infected, and one has died; in Sierra Leone, 691 have been infected, with 286 deaths; in Guinea, there have been 495 cases and 363 deaths.
Already before the outbreak, the Catholic Church had been working to prevent an epidemic and to educate people in common hygienic procedures.
“Working on the ground, we were aware of this extremely dangerous disease for months and worked really hard to educate communities,” Laura Sheahen, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis, told CNA Aug. 7.
Sheahen said that the organization is working to expand its activity “now that the epidemic is spreading very quickly.”
“There is a need for international funding to help Caritas in developing its work with communities,” she said. “We have a lot of courageous priests, volunteers and parish workers who are working incredibly hard on the ground.”
A World Health Organization survey reported that between 40% and 70% of African health facilities are the property of or managed by Catholic churches. In many countries, the Catholic Church runs almost half of the local health facilities.
However, Msgr. Vitillo said, “in situations of crisis like that of the Ebola outbreak, it is difficult to meet all the needs of the population, and it is especially difficult to have access to resources, to supplies.”
“At the moment, we are organizing an emergency appeal, trying to buying supplies,” he explained, adding that this work requires “collaboration with local governments, with international structures and with pharmaceutical companies, which are the producers of supplies.”
The Caritas adviser said that there are presently no medicines able to attack the Ebola virus.
He suggested that many pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to spend so much money on Ebola research. Although the virus has caused “great damage,” it is “not spread all over the world.”
Holy See representatives took part in a two-day emergency meeting in Geneva to determine whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency and how to address it.
Msgr. Vitillo explained “that was not a session at a government level; it was mostly a technical session,” but the “Holy See is also in touch with the officials at the World Health Organization and with the officials of the government interested.”
“The Church is very much involved in combating the epidemic; it is part of its history. We have always worked a lot during the various pandemics,” he noted.
The Caritas adviser recounted that the Church had a role in the discovery of the Ebola virus. The virus’ co-discoverer, Dr. Peter Piot, was working as a missionary doctor in Zaire when he helped discovered Ebola. According to the monsignor, Piot “always spoke very well of his experience with nuns of the hospital” for which he worked.
Education About Prevention
Beyond seeking to cure infected people, the Catholic Church is always committed to education, Msgr. Vitillo added.
“We educate people: We explain in villages the importance of basic hygienic rules, like washing hands, in order to prevent the dissemination of the virus.”
On pastoral education, Msgr. Vitillo said that the Catholic Church “supports people in their suffering, showing that there is a God accompanying us in our sufferings and that the Church has a special way of commemorating the dead people: that Jesus has given his life for us; he went beyond death for us, and so there is hope.”
This kind of pastoral education is important because it helps to avoid local customs involving the burial of the dead. These traditions include a vigil and touching the corpse of the deceased, a very dangerous practice when seeking to curtail infectious disease.
Sheahen also noted that burial rites are one difficulty regarding Ebola prevention.
She said that, “for many months, people did not believe that Ebola is real; some believed it was something the government had created for some strange purpose for political reasons.”
Now, “people do believe it’s real, but they find it difficult to change some cultural traditions that help to spread the infection.”
“West African culture is very social: They shake hands, they like to socialize, to get together, and whether they are Christians, Muslims or of traditional religions, they also want to be in contact with the body of a dead member of their families before the burial,” Sheahen explained.
“They want to wash the body, touch the body. All of this is very dangerous.”