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Unsafe Burials Perpetuate Ebola in Sierra Leone

A burial team wearing protective clothing, remove a body of a person suspected of having died of the Ebola virus, in Freetown September 28, 2014.

A burial team wearing protective clothing, remove a body of a person suspected of having died of the Ebola virus, in Freetown September 28, 2014.

Sierra Leone is preparing for another lockdown to fight the Ebola epidemic. It is believed that against all medical advice, some people continue to bury the dead themselves, bringing them into contact with the virus.

In a tiny village just outside of Bo, people pray as a burial team puts to rest Amadu Dauda, a man in his 70's who died from a heart attack.

In order to fight the deadly virus, all burials in Sierra Leone have to be done by a professional burial team in a safe and dignified manner.

It is hoped this will help stop the virus, which is spread through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. Bodies are at their most contagious right after someone dies.

Lingering dissent

That fact does not sit well with everyone in rural areas, said Alhaji Abu Mansaray, one of the burial team members in Bo.

“Some of them will run away from the village and go to the bush; some just give us bad language,” said Mansaray.

People have even been known to physically attack burial teams.

Things are improving, though, said another team member, Siddie Kanu. He explained they always speak to communities before the burial, and try to explain why they are there.

“We tell them we have come to join the family, to lay the corpse to rest and we tell them we are not here as an enemy,” said Kanu.

Better communication

The non-governmental organization World Vision is managing six burial teams in Bo, as well as others across the country.

Grace Kargbo is the base manager for World Vision in Bo. She said another reason the burials are going well is improved communication with faith leaders.

The NGO makes sure spiritual leaders are involved, because people in the communities listen to them.

The approach seems to be working, as the district has not had a new Ebola case since January. That does not mean, however, people should relax just yet, said Kargbo.

Liberia just had a new case emerge after weeks of no new cases. Sierra Leone is still seeing cases almost every day.

“We are winning but we have not won, and I always say you cannot celebrate until you cross the finish line, until our neighbors, Liberia, Guinea, register zero cases for 42 days and Sierra Leone registers zero for 42 days, and the WHO [World Health Organization] says it is over ... Then it is over,” said Kargbo.

She added that having women on the team has helped. Traditionally men cannot bury women and there has been some resistance to burials involving deceased women. Now, with several women on burial teams, people have been more accepting. Kargbo said she believes that also may play a factor in reducing Ebola cases.

Ongoing hurdles

Although these burial team members are proud of what they do, they continue to face stigma.

Many have been abandoned by friends and family, like Francis Cole, the burial team supervisor for World Vision in Bo. He is not letting that stop him.

“So I thought it fit that it’s a national service, I need to volunteer, to render it [for] my country,” he said.

It's a sentiment many others on the team have, too.