Three months after it first surfaced in Guinea, the Ebola virus epidemic – which has also hit Liberia and Sierra Leone – has been judged ‘out of control’ by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The virus has been eradicated from certain places only to spring up in others. For our Observers in Guinea, the real problem is raising public awareness.
On Tuesday, Doctor Bart Janssen – director of operations at MSF – warned that new outbreaks of the epidemic in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia indicated a real risk that the virus could spread even further.
Marc Poncin, emergency coordinator for MSF, in Conakry - told FRANCE 24 that “the epidemic has now taken on a regional dimension. It has spilled over into two neighbouring countries. A third of the patients in Gueckedou [the epicentre of the latest outbreak] come from Sierra Leone. The other big problem is that people aren't following proper control measures. Some of them even go so far as to question the existence of Ebola.” MSF says that control measures often aren’t respected during burials.
In total, 60 outbreaks of the epidemic have been identified. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 635 presumed cases were recorded since the start of the year. Of those, 385 have been confirmed as being cases of the Ebola virus. The virus manifests itself through fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding and carries a mortality rate from 50% to 90%. It’s transmitted through direct contact with biological liquids, such as blood, sperm and saliva, or through the tissue of infected subjects. There is currently no treatment or vaccine that exists. In total, 399 people have died.
“In areas where the virus has disappeared, people think that Ebola is made-up”
On Saturday, in Telimele, there were no sick people in the isolation centre. The two cases under observation turned out to be negative and the situation seemed to be under control. Kindia was never affected.
But as a result, the fact that there are fewer cases had an impact on people’s behavior. Many think that the Ebola virus is make-believe, that it never existed. Hygiene measures are less respected than before: we saw at the market people shaking hands and kissing each other, doing things ill-advised. In most of the restaurants, small buckets of chlorinated water that allow people to wash their hands have disappeared. MSF and WHO have said not to claim victory yet, but that doesn’t seem to have affected people’s behavior. The number of deaths and cases reported by MSF has even been contested by local authorities [The Guinean minister of health, Remy Lamah, has himself rejected the declarations of MSF, saying that they don’t reflect the reality of the situation] which doesn’t encourage people to stay alert.
Marc Poncin explains that in Telimele the population had behaved exceptionally by sticking to the control measures. “We had healing rates that had never been reached before, with 3 out of 4 patients healed. We have to wait to make sure that the virus has been eradicated from the city, because the incubation time is 21 days.
"Communication is limited to a few spots on the television and radio"
It’s not surprising that the virus is coming back and that new sources of the virus are appearing. People are becoming less vigilant here in Conakry. For me, the government is partly responsible for that: at the start of the epidemic, there was a big effort to communicate preventative measures to stop the virus from spreading. There were messages on the television, radio, posters. There were even people raising public awareness in the street. Communication has been limited now to a few publicity spots on the television and the radio. This situation worries me; we must double our efforts to counter the virus.
"Some even think that the virus was in the chlorinated water that we handed out"
The appearance of the Ebola virus in Macenta around three or four weeks ago forced us to bolster prevention efforts, but the work is often complex. There were door-to-door handouts of chlorine and soap but people have to be persuaded to use them. Some even believe that the virus was in the chlorinated water. We try to explain to people how to safely dispose of rubbish because many tend to just throw it in the river, which raises the risk of the virus spreading. We explain how to sort the rubbish, and the importance of using bins. I also go in public cinemas and meeting places to remind people of the precautions to take. The rainy season also caused flooding in the city, leaving stagnant water which increases the risks. As a result, we’re extending the drainage system to evacuate the water.
"The belief rate is growing, but it takes a permanent effort"
There haven’t been any cases in my city, but we need to be all the more vigilant and pursue public awareness efforts, because we’re in an area threatened by the virus. The illiteracy rate is high in Guinea, so we must explain to people that the virus does exist, that it’s dangerous and can happen here like elsewhere. Some have difficulty believing it. They still think that it’s just bad fate and not a virus. They’re real Saint Thomas’s; they want to see it to believe it. The number of believers is growing, but it takes a permanent effort, and we can’t let up our efforts.