The World Health Organization is set to declare Liberia Ebola free. It will make that declaration on May 9th if no new cases are reported. In a sign of how the situation has improved, the Liberian Red Cross has handed back responsibility for safe burials to the Ministry of Health.
The Red Cross became the lead agency – for what it calls – safe and dignified burials – in Montserrado County in July of last year. The county includes the capital Monrovia. The agency assumed responsibility at the request of the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.
In Monrovia, Anita Dullard is the spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She said traditional burials during a time of Ebola can be very dangerous.
“Unfortunately, the dead bodies of Ebola victims are actually almost at their most contagious and remain so for up to 10 days after the person has deceased. So, washing of the bodies or open casket and contact with the bodies – the difficulty with Ebola of course is that it’s spread by bodily fluid and contact with the person who has died. And at this hugely contagious stage of the virus in those bodies it was an absolute disaster for families to be exposing themselves in that way during the traditional burial,” she said.
The decision dramatically affected a way of life for saying goodbye to the dead.
Dullard said, “This is a huge, huge cultural change for Liberians because it meant not only had they just lost one of their loved ones, they’re also suddenly being told that they can’t perform the regular rituals that they have to honor their dead, which was of course completely traumatic as I’m sure anyone who’s lost a loved one can imagine.”
The Red Cross trained 150 volunteers and from last July to April of this year safely buried more than 3,500 bodies.
Dullard doubts Liberia would be on the verge of being Ebola-free unless burial protocols were strictly enforced.
“Prevention, obviously, is paramount and getting those messages out there on how not to contract the disease. But in the final [analysis] contact with people who have the disease is ultimately how the disease spread so rapidly. And if we hadn’t had taken dignified burials, you know, I think we’d be facing a very different situation now,” she said.
The Red Cross will continue other Ebola-related programs in Liberia, including emotional and psychosocial support, strengthening health systems and cross border surveillance to ensure Ebola infected individuals do not enter from Guinea and Sierra Leone.
There have been more than 10,000 suspected, probable and confirmed cases of Ebola in Liberia and more than 4,600 deaths.