Stemming the Tide of Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia

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Last week, Handicap International’s teams in Sierra Leone and Liberia used their mother and child health projects to help disseminate Ebola prevention messages. In Sierra Leone, Handicap International deployed staff from 42 health centers and 10 local NGOs to educate the public about how Ebola is transmitted, how to reduce the risk of transmission, how to spot the symptoms of the virus, and what to do if they suspect someone has been contaminated. We also distributed hundreds of information booklets to eight partner organizations in the districts of Kenema and Kailahun. Adam Huebner, Handicap International’s health coordinator in Liberia and Sierra Leone, describes the situation on the ground:

The situation is complicated for our teams in Liberia. One hundred and nine people have already died from the virus in Monrovia. One of our colleagues lives in a neighborhood placed under quarantine after a case was detected a few streets from his home. The police have set up controls to prevent unauthorized people from entering or leaving the neighborhood, and patrols warn residents to stay indoors. Distributions are being organized to supply people with food. According to guidelines issued by the authorities, these measures will remain in force for about 20 days.

In Sierra Leone, the state of emergency decreed by the president has also had a direct impact on Handicap International’s work and the daily lives of the population as a whole. On Aug. 4, the government enforced a complete travel ban, and the police and army patrolled the streets, stopping anyone found outside. The travel restrictions were lifted on Aug. 6, but the government has asked NGOs to focus on stemming the spread of the virus. We’ve been advised to avoid travel and meetings.

Yesterday we met with our partners, including the National Commission for People with Disabilities, to organize an awareness campaign that will be run by disabled people’s organizations in and around Freetown. The campaign will be rolled out over the next few days. We’re also going to use songs, short plays, and discussions to get the message across. We want to make sure we really get through to people, including the most vulnerable, such as those with hearing or visual impairments. People with impairments often find it difficult to access these messages and may be more vulnerable to the virus because they rely on touch to move around and to communicate.

Here in Freetown it feels like the virus is still at a reasonably safe distance, but if more cases are detected [six cases have been confirmed in Freetown to date] in heavily populated areas, the risk of contamination would be very high, so these prevention measures are really important. Fortunately, our teams and partners are keeping their heads about them, but we’re still applying fairly strict precautionary measures. We don’t use public transport anymore, for example. The situation has had an impact on everyone and all sorts of activities. It’s difficult to think about anything else for more than a few minutes.

I accompanied my wife to the airport on Friday. She’s pregnant and was finally able to leave the country, but the situation there was pretty dramatic. There’s a heavy security presence and lots of people are trying to leave the country, even though some airlines have temporarily suspended their flights.

Adam Huebner is based in Freetown. He has worked as a health and rehabilitation coordinator for Handicap International’s Sierra Leone and Liberia program since February 2014. He studied anthropology at Wisconsin University and Public Health and Epidemiology at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.