Solving the Ebola Crisis
Catholic Aid Is Vital
KAMPALA, Uganda — As Ebola infections continue to rise in five West-African countries, Catholic charities offer invaluable assistance to health-care institutions and governments fighting the deadly epidemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes the current Ebola outbreak as the most deadly since the disease was discovered in 1974. A Sept. 23 WHO report indicated that there are more than 4,500 probable and confirmed Ebola virus disease (EVD) cases.
Additionally, more than 2,200 Ebola deaths have been confirmed in West Africa since the outbreak began this March. WHO expects the cumulative number of cases to reach 20,000 by Nov. 2. And, on Oct. 8, Thomas Duncan became the first person to die of the disease in the United States. He traveled to the U.S. from Liberia. According to CNN, he was admitted to a Dallas hospital 10 days earlier.
Several health-care workers and a journalist who became infected in Africa have been or are being treated in the United States. Other possible cases are also under review in the U.S. and Spain.
On Oct. 6, the Obama administration announced a plan to ramp up screening of travelers who come from Ebola-infected countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security are enacting new screening measures in the five U.S. airports that, according to White House reports, receive 94% of travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Trained staff will observe travelers for signs of illness (fever), ask them a series of health and exposure questions and provide health information for Ebola and reminders to monitor themselves for symptoms.
Temperatures will be taken with a non-contact thermometer. The plan does not include blocking flights from West Africa, but the administration said it has been working closely with officials in those countries on screening protocols. Additionally, in late October, Obama is expected to send 3,200 U.S. troops to Liberia to set up 17 field hospitals, airlift supplies and train local health authorities.
The disease — which is spread among humans through direct contact with infected bodily fluids — has now swept to five West-African countries: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and Nigeria.
The unabated spread of the infection has prompted WHO to describe it as “an international emergency.” The majority of cases have occurred in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Senegal, whose first suspected cases were recorded in late August, has one confirmed EVD case. No deaths have been reported, however, and infections have since stagnated.
In Nigeria, a WHO report dated Sept. 10 revealed that the country has recorded 20 Ebola cases. Seven deaths have been confirmed since July, when the disease was first reported in Nigeria.
Emergency in Liberia
Of the countries affected by the epidemic, Liberia has been hit worst. Following the rising Ebola infection rate in the country, in early August, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency for 90 days. The epidemic has affected eight of the nation’s 15 counties, including the capital of Monrovia.
According to an Aug. 28 United Nations report, the general security situation in many parts of Liberia remains tense due to the Ebola outbreak. By Sept. 24, a report from the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare put the cumulative total of suspected, probable and confirmed cases of EVD in the country at 3,280, with 1,677 confirmed cumulative Ebola virus deaths.
In order to stave off the onslaught of the disease, WHO has proposed to triple the capacity of the treatment centers in and around Monrovia to 1,000 beds, due to the anticipated surge in infection rates.
While the U.N. mission in Liberia lauds the government’s decision to criminalize the concealment of infectious diseases such as EVD, it called for grassroots efforts to educate people on the gravity of the threat when the disease is hidden. The organization noted that those who conceal infections do so because of ignorance.
In Liberia, the virus has claimed entire families and even small communities in some cases. The death toll is highest among health workers and women, who are the primary caregivers.
Catholic Hospital Tragedy
William Saa, a zonal coordinator for the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (an organization coordinating relief efforts), told the Register that St. Joseph’s Hospital in Monrovia experienced a particularly sad Ebola-related tragedy. The death of a young female patient, initially not know to be infected with EVD, led to the subsequent deaths of the health administrator, nurses, nuns, a priest from Spain and a Ugandan doctor who had responded to WHO’s call to go and render service.
Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas described the situation in Liberia as “very alarming” to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the U.S. bishops’ foreign-aid charity.
“When it hit the St. Joseph Catholic hospital in Monrovia, it came home to us,” Bishop Karnley said.
He added, “When it hits your family, it’s really hard.”
In an effort to avert the devastating effects of the epidemic, the government and the Church in Liberia are working vigorously to educate the population about the disease. Bishop Karnley blamed the difficulties in containing the outbreak with lack of experience and the infrastructure necessary to safely treat the symptoms of Ebola.
The bishop said superstition has worked against the education process as well. “People can’t come to terms with the fact that a family member dies and they can’t perform their last rites at the burial,” he said.
Bishop Karnley, however, insists that educating people on how to protect themselves from the virus is key to containing the outbreak. He explained, “When more people can interact and are connected, those myths will be dispelled; otherwise, information is distorted as it travels.”
Other efforts to fight against EVD in Liberia are being coordinated by the Salesian missionaries. Along with volunteers, the missionary team is working to reach people at risk in rural areas. They provide basic information and instructions from the Ministry of Health as well as distribute gloves and disinfectants such as chlorine.
Salesians are also working in Sierra Leone, which, according to WHO, accounts for 40% of the total reported Ebola cases. According to The New York Times, as of Sept. 25, Sierra Leone — which has the second-highest recorded Ebola virus deaths — confirmed 1,940 cases of Ebola and 597 deaths.
Neighboring Guinea confirmed 1,022 Ebola cases and 625 Ebola deaths during the same period. Guinean President Alpha Conde, in collaboration with the World Bank, announced a compensation package of $10,000 will be given to families of health-care workers who died as a result of the EVD outbreak in their country. Subsequently, the government-created Ebola Crisis Team announced that 54 health-care workers were infected, 28 of whom had died.
As part of an emergency appeal, Salesian Missions is making strides to stave off starvation in all of the affected countries.
“Our missionaries are sharing supplies of rice with other religious organizations working directly with the sick in the few hospitals that remain open,” said Father Mark Hyde, executive director of Salesian Missions, the U.S. development arm of the international Salesians of Don Bosco.
Father Hyde told Reuters, “Efforts to contain the outbreak are an exhausting struggle for our missionaries, who are working at great personal risk.”
Salesian Missions has launched an emergency fund to assist Salesian missionaries in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone to help contain the deadly outbreak in West Africa.
Father Hyde told Reuters, “We are hearing from our missionaries in the affected countries, and they are asking for immediate assistance to help fund their lifesaving efforts.”
Concurring with WHO’s description of the Ebola outbreak as a global emergency, he said, “The situation is extremely urgent.”
‘We Will Not Give Up’
Additionally, in Sierra Leone, the local Catholic Church has come out vigorously to join in the fight against the deadly Ebola epidemic. Father Joe Turay, vice rector of the Catholic University of Makeni, told Fides news agency that a special task force, headed by the diocesan Caritas office, has been formed to coordinate a response to the crisis.
To this end, pamphlets and other materials have been given to parishes for distribution to catechists and pastoral workers as part of a wider program to spread awareness and information about the Ebola virus. Together with the Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone, the Church has produced messages and letters that have been circulated among the people to warn of the seriousness of the situation.
As well, the Church is using Radio Maria Sierra Leone to broadcast talks on Ebola by doctors, experts, town and village representatives and members of parliament, all in an effort to fight Ebola.
Most importantly, Father Turay explained that programs to support people quarantined in homes are taking shape.
“We accompany them in these difficult times,” and we pray together with them, that “God may give us the necessary wisdom and courage to tackle the crisis,” he said. “The challenges are many, and we are scarcely equipped to face them, but we will not give up.”
Sister Grace Candiru,
of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church,
writes from Kampala, Uganda.
- Oct. 19-Nov. 1, 2014