Via The Star, a fascinating interview by Jennifer Yang: Secret weapons for stopping Ebola? Humanity, trust and respect. Click through for the full story and many links. Excerpt:
In West Africa, rumours and mistrust are fanning the flames of a deadly Ebola outbreak, which has now infected at least 779 people and claimed the lives of more than 480. Now spread across three bordering countries — Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia — the virus has caused the largest and most complex outbreak since Ebola was first reported in 1976.
According to the World Health Organization , "negative cultural practices and traditional beliefs" have resulted in "mistrust, apprehension and resistance" towards public health officials trying to control the outbreak; villagers are hiding sick family members, treating patients at home, and practicing high-risk burial rituals that spread the disease.
Last week, health ministers at an emergency meeting in Ghana agreed that improving education and increasing awareness were among the many priority actions needed to stop this outbreak; an editorial published in The Lancet also pointed out how poor communication and policies have "raised anxiety and, in some places, fueled rumours that led to counter-productive behaviours."
All of this is why people like Reine Lebel are so valuable in the effort to stop Ebola. The 68-year-old psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières spent a month in Guinea this May during the outbreak’s first wave. There, she not only provided psychosocial support to patients and their families, Lebel also worked to counteract rumours and smooth over relationships with distrustful villagers.
For Lebel, trust and respect are essential ingredients for defeating Ebola, a virus for which there is no cure or vaccine. She spoke with me last week from her home in Quebec about what she did in Guinea to try and restore some humanity to the communities devastated by this outbreak.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell us about your time in Guinea and your first day on the mission.
It was, oof, really hard work. Because I went to 20 funerals, so just imagine what this means.
I was supposed to go to (the town of) Macenta but they had trouble there; there was some violence against MSF . So they decided that I was going to stay in (the town of) Guéckédou instead … but that was a good thing because we had a lot of patients when I arrived there the first day. There was a child that died, a little girl of 18 months. So that’s how I started my mission, with a funeral.
Did you always attend the funerals of patients who died from Ebola?
Yes, that’s the regular part of the response — with MSF anyways. That’s part of the job of the psychosocial workers and the HP team, the health promotion team, to be there; to accompany the person and the family. The families that we take care of at the centre, they also need support to go back into the community and to not be stigmatized about this.
When we go (to the funerals), usually there’s a ritual. We bring the body and then we talk to the wives of the village or the traditional practitioner, and to the chief of the village. So we meet with them and talk about what’s going on and also give them some information about Ebola. And then we carry on with the ceremony.
Did you encounter any hostility while you were in Guinea?
There was only one time … rumours were said that (a sick person in the community) was connected with MSF to bring Ebola there and to actually make money in Guinea. So that was a big rumour and many people in that family had died.
That person was a nurse and two of his wives had died of Ebola. In the beginning, he took care of one of his wives and he got infected. When she died, many people took care of the body in the traditional rituals — touching the body, washing the body and everything like this — and they were infected too and some of them died in the community. So that’s why the hostility; it was like, "Okay, this guy brought Ebola here and they’re all getting treated at MSF."
This guy survived (but) he didn’t want to survive because he was afraid for his life. We brought him to another community where actually there was some retaliation and at a certain point, we got a message that his life was in danger. So we had to go back to the village and see people and discuss, one family at a time. And just before I left Guinea, he came back to the treatment centre to tell us that the situation was getting much better.