“I don’t believe in Ebola,” Craig Manning’s driver told him as he chauffeured the viral emergency specialist through Freetown, Sierra Leone, where infection rates are rising. The man came from a rural part of the country where people were already dying from the virus.
The epidemic, the deadliest on record, continues to batter Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, with 85 new cases and 68 deaths reported in four days earlier this month, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Sierra Leone bore the brunt of new infections and deaths, with 49 new cases and 52 deaths reported. The total number of cases in West Africa stands at 982, with 613 deaths as of 17 July.
Yet, as the Ebola virus continues to spread, so do the rumours. Some say you can contract Ebola from a motorcycle helmet. Others say you can cure the deadly virus by drinking Nescafé mixed with cocoa and sugar – or with two large onions.
It’s Mr Manning’s job to take onions out of the equation. A health communications strategist with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Mr Manning was sent to Guinea at the first outbreak of the Ebola crisis in March. When one of his colleagues, Pierre Roland, an expert on Ebola, gave a presentation at the US Embassy in Conakry about mitigating risks of transmission, Mr Manning recorded him. He then had the edited 30-second snippets translated into 10 local languages and broadcast on radio and television.
When the virus spread to Sierra Leone, Mr Manning teamed up with BBC Media Action to bring together radio station managers to help spread the word.
Mr Manning said ensuring local populations understand Ebola is essential. For instance, in areas where the virus has spread, relatives wash bodies by hand before funerals, putting families at risk.
“People do not easily accept the idea that teams will take their deceased loved one, put them in a bag and bury them somewhere different,” Manning said.
This balance demands communication, according to the WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein. “There are a set of beliefs and myths that impede our messages about treatment,” he said.
Médecins Sans Frontières has been unable to gain access to some affected areas because of hostility from the people there. Local communities fear outsiders are bringing the virus with them or want to exterminate the infected, since so few who receive treatment return alive.
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