Eyewitness testimony from the heart of Guinea's Ebola outbreak
For the first time in its history, Guinea has been struck by a sudden outbreak of the virulent Ebola virus. So far, the disease has spread to several prefectures in the south including the city of Gueckedou, one of the country’s worst-hit areas. Our Observer there says that due to a lack of information, people haven’t taken on board the severity of the epidemic.
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For the first time in its history, Guinea has been struck by a sudden outbreak of the virulent Ebola virus. So far, the disease has spread to several prefectures in the south, including the city of Gueckedou, one of the country’s worst-hit areas. Our Observer there says that due to a lack of information, people haven’t taken on board the severity of the epidemic.
The devastating virus first appeared at the beginning of February, causing dozens of deaths in the country’s south: the prefectures of Macenta, Kissidougou and Gueckedou were particularly hard-hit. According to the latest information from UNICEF, out of 87people to have contracted the virus, 61 have died. The organisation later announced that two victims in the capital of Conakry had been suffering symptoms that closely resembled Ebola. Medical analyses later concluded that the victims weren't suffering from the virus.
Ebola has a mortality rate that runs from 50% to 90%. Someone who contracts the virus can expect to show symptoms ranging from fever and diarrhea to vomiting and bleeding. No known treatment or vaccine exists for the disease, which can be spread through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids: particularly, blood, sperm or saliva.
The sudden outbreak is all the more alarming given that the Guinean health system ranks among Africa’s worst. The World Health Organisation, Medicins Sans Frontieres [MSF], and UNICEF are all on the ground helping authorities fight the spread of the disease. Yet despite this help, health authorities say they’re struggling to get on top of the crisis.
“Patients snuck out of hospital to see practitioners of traditional medicine”
Souleymane Bah is a journalist for Espace, a radio and television channel in Guinea. Last week he went to Gueckedou, a city where more than 220,000 people live, to see how the population was managing the outbreak.
When I arrived, health organisations were already getting down to work. The city’s main hospital was getting disinfected by MSF. They received enormous quantities of disinfectant products, notably chlorine. An isolation centre had also been opened a little bit further away where infected people were transferred. When I was there, they instructed me to stay at least 100 metres away from patients.
The isolation centre.
I also went to the neighbourhood of Baloma – the worst-hit area – which is around 5 kilometres from the centre of town. We visited the house of a family that had been decimated by the virus. The area had been disinfected because the Red Cross was cleaning the areas where patients had been. Some workers complained that the material they had to work with wasn’t up to date.
In this area, we felt that people understood that something serious had happened. They were giving in to panic. But in the rest of the city – a real business hub – life goes on as normal. You won’t come across anyone wearing specific protection.
The city hospital.
At the start, neither the patients nor the doctors understood what was happening. There was talk of a mysterious illness that was similar to cholera and typhoid fever. Some patients snuck out of hospitals to get the opinion of traditional practitioners, which only helped spread the virus.
“When a family member is sick, all of his relatives stay by his bedside”
In this city, like in surrounding towns, people don’t know what to do. When a family member is sick, all of his relatives stay by his bedside. Then, once they die, since it’s unthinkable to abandon a body, the body is buried. At any one of these moments, loved ones risk being infected.
It is essential to do real work on the risks and means of transmission. Up until now, the authorities have broadcast advice over local radio, but that isn’t enough. I think that we don’t have an exact idea of the number of infected people because we only count people that are admitted for treatment. But there’s probably a lot more if we include surrounding towns and villages.
A health centre is disinfected.
The Ebola virus was identified for the first time in 1976, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, outbreaks have been reported in Uganda, Gabon and South Sudan. The World Health Organisation says it fears that the virus has spread as far as Sierra Leone – next-door to Guinea – after similar symptoms were noticed there.
All images were sent by television channel Espace TV. Daouda Diallo contributed to the writing of this article.