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Obstacles to Ending Ebola Remain in West Africa

  • Carol Pearson

A spike in the number of Ebola victims in Guinea has citizens and health officials in West Africa concerned about a possible return of the deadly disease.

One of several obstacles to ending the epidemic in Guinea and Sierra Leone is the climate. It's the start of the rainy season in West Africa, when roads turn to mud, making it hard to get medicine and supplies to those with Ebola.

Another problem is attitude. People in these countries have been living in the midst of an Ebola crisis for more than a year, and that can make a deadly virus seem normal, said Dr. Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization.

"Over time, people get used to Ebola," he said. "In these communities, we're seeing people trying to treat Ebola at home, when they know it's Ebola — trying to take precautions, wearing gloves and things like that. And at a different level, internationally, people are getting used to hearing about Ebola, which is really, really, scary."

Stigma, fear and denial are associated with the disease. In a webcast from Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), Ella Watson-Stryker said Ebola "is a disease that creates fear and everyone’s afraid — whether it’s the leader of a small village, whether it’s the president of a country.

The doctors and nurses who respond are afraid. The health promoters, who are there — trained to talk about Ebola — are afraid. And our patients are terrified. And so, I think that’s the biggest barrier that we have to overcome, and when people are afraid, denial becomes a very good fallback."

Finding out who had contact with a sick person is as crucial in controlling Ebola as getting people into treatment centers. Sophie Sabatier, also with Doctors Without Borders, told VOA from Conakry, Guinea, that "as long as there is one case of Ebola, the epidemic is not finished."

Another obstacle: poor public health systems. Many West African hospitals lack running water and electricity. Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are asking the international community to help them build modern health facilities.

Dr. Tom Frieden of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized this need in a speech at the World Bank in March. "The public health infrastructure is crucial to get to zero [cases] and to stay at zero," he said.

Frieden said a good national health system will always be able to respond faster than the international community can at the beginning of an epidemic.