Ebola campaigners reach out to traditional healers

2014-11-12 18:16
File: AP

File: AP

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Freetown - Aid workers in West Africa battling the Ebola epidemic have focused on educating traditional healers to stop myths and rumours about the virus. Their efforts have convinced some to stop treating Ebola patients, but education remains a top priority.

When a Red Cross information campaign informed Fallah James, a traditional medicine man in Sierra Leone, that Ebola can be transmitted via physical contact, he immediately stopped trying to heal victims of the virus.

"Me - I know nothing about Ebola," says James, who leads a group of traditional healers in the hard-hit eastern district of Kailahun. "The only thing I know is that you can contract it from somebody. That's why I decided to stop [treating people]."

Thanks to intensive information campaign efforts in the remotest corners of the epidemic-hit regions of West Africa, more and more traditional healers like James have decided to stop treating Ebola patients - an important development because of their role in the region.

"Demoniac problem"

"Traditional healers form a big part of medicine in West Africa," says Neima Candy, the co-ordinator for Red Cross Ebola efforts in Liberia.

Rather than seek medical attention with Ebola questions or symptoms, people spoke with traditional healers and went to prayer houses. Some were told that the illness was a "demonic problem" that could be tackled with things like herbs or salt water baths, Candy says.

Superstition, miracle healers and voodoo are widespread in many areas of Africa, including in the countries worst hit by Ebola: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"At the beginning of the outbreak, there was lots of fear, panic and low knowledge associated with the disease, which led to distrust in the health systems," she added.

"It is also the fault of traditional healers who make people believe that it was witchcraft that made them sick and not Ebola," said Mohamed Kamara, a businessman and resident of the north-western Port Loko district of Sierra Leone.

Traditional medicine

But when the faith healers themselves became infected with the virus, community residents began to understand that something else aside from witchcraft could be causing the Ebola disease, Red Cross expert Candy said.

One traditional healer who contracted the virus while treating a case in Port Loko fled the region with his wife, says Abdulai Sesay, a disease surveillance officer in Koinadugu District.

According to Candy, news of such cases have had an impact. As more and more reports emerged about survivors healed by Western medicine, many people turned their backs on traditional medicine, Candy added.

In the meantime, the traditional healers and members of powerful secret societies have been getting involved in the campaigns to inform the public.

A significant problem in those efforts is that many people in West Africa live in remote regions, which makes reaching a health centre or hospital a difficult task.

Many families still hiding their ill members

"These three countries have some of the poorest health services in the world," says Melanie Gallant, media co-ordinator for the non-government organisation Oxfam.

Gallant says that for every 100 000 thousand people in Liberia, there is only one doctor to treat them.

Oxfam has only recently warned that mistrust, rumours and myths about Ebola had been and remain major reasons for the spread of the virus. The group called for stepped-up prevention efforts on the scene and for more financial support.

Many families are still hiding their ill members in their homes, out of fear of being stigmatized, but above all for fear of the quarantine stations where the patients are kept isolated.

"I would rather die in my house than going to the hospital and have a painful death - all in the name of seeking treatment from doctors and nurses," said Mohamed Sankoh, a bread seller at Saint John Street in Freetown.

Sankoh's sentiment, shared by many others, shows the uphill battle that campaigners in West Africa still face in increasing public awareness about the disease.

Read more on:    red cross  |  sierra leone  |  health  |  west africa  |  ebola

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