WHO faces challenge of dispelling myths in order to treat the Ebola epidemic in Africa

July 23, 2014

National health authorities, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other healthcare partners are working tirelessly to contain the Ebola outbreak affecting Sierra Leone’s eastern districts of Kailahun and Kenema. As of July 17, the number of cases attributed to Ebola virus disease (EVD) in the west African nation was 442, including 206 deaths. Finding and treating all Ebola patients and then tracing and observing the close contacts of those people over a period of 21 days to ensure they have not been infected are keys to halting the chain of transmission.

Persistent myths among indigenous populations about transmission and treatment are adding significantly to the daunting task facing healthcare professionals. Some members of affected communities fear that the outsiders are bringing the virus with them. In an appalling irony, some believe that the medical professionals are putting the infected to death. (This dreadful notion may be given the appearance of plausibility by the fact that so many sick people who leave the community for treatment do not return alive.) Doctors Without Borders has been unable to gain access to some affected areas due to the misplaced hostility of the people who need their help so badly. The organization has brought anthropologists on board in an attempt to better understand the traditions and cultures of the people they are treating, and to develop strategies to overcome suspicions.

Technology is also being implemented to help spread information and identify centers of infection. Crowd sourcing data has become an important new way to quickly source information about people at risk and to locate the epicenters of the crisis, helping to provide an effective response and mobilizing targeted aid. WHO has been operating emergency Ebola hotlines in Sierra Leone and the other affected countries, Liberia and Guinea. The organization is exploring text messaging, since 40% of affected populations use mobile phones. Learn more about the WHO’s efforts.

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