Freetown, Sierra Leone, Aug 1, 2014 / 16:04 pm
As the deadly Ebola virus continues to claim victims in West Africa, Catholic Relief Services is working to fight the outbreak by educating affected communities and dispelling local myths.
"This is the first time West Africa has experienced an Ebola outbreak," said Michael Stulman, CRS Regional Information Officer for West and Central Africa.
"A lot of people don't know what Ebola is, or they don't believe it exists," he told CNA July 31. "There are a lot of myths surrounding the virus."
Stulman explained that many misconceptions about Ebola are facilitating the virus' fatal spread throughout West Africa.
It is rumored that "when you go to the hospital, doctors will give you injections that kill you, or once you go in, you won't come out alive," he said. But the truth is, there are survivors of Ebola, and "receiving early treatment is critical."
He added that some locals believe Ebola is caused by a curse, which can only be undone by a traditional healer. There is also a risk of spreading Ebola at burial ceremonies that include washing the body of the deceased.
"CRS communications with affected communities takes into consideration all of the challenges," Stulman said. "We try to address the myths, fears and cultural challenges people are facing."
The current Ebola outbreak started in March and has spread across Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, killing more than 700 people.
According to the World Health Organization, Ebola has no vaccine and no specific treatment. The virus is spread through direct contact with blood, secretions or other bodily fluids of infected persons. This outbreak has a fatality rate of around 60 percent, according to reports.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel warning July 31 discouraging nonessential travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The CDC warnings come just one day after the president of Sierra Leone declared a State of Emergency.
Because of its person-to-person transmission, Ebola puts many medical missionaries at risk.
The Peace Corps has withdrawn 340 volunteers in West Africa after two workers were exposed to the virus.
The first known American victim was Patrick Sawyer, who died July 25 while under quarantine at a Nigeria hospital. Sawyer was taken to the hospital after collapsing at a Nigeria airport, according to reports.
Two American medical missionaries with the North Carolina-based missionary organization Samaritan's Purse have also been diagnosed. Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol contracted the virus while working at an Ebola care center near Liberia's capital city of Monrovia.
The missionaries are being flown to the United States this weekend to receive treatment at a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, according to CNN.
Thus far, Catholic Relief Services' staff have not been exposed to the virus, though the agency has removed all non-essential staff from affected areas.
"We keep monitoring the situation daily," Stulman explained. "Staff safety and security is a priority for CRS."
Public education is a critical element of CRS' work combatting the Ebola outbreak. The agency has teamed up with local community leaders, Caritas, and the Ministries of Health to raise awareness about Ebola.
CRS is also utilizing local radio stations to broadcast public service announcements and daily radio discussions with health officials and community leaders. During the radio discussions, listeners are encouraged to call in with questions and concerns regarding the outbreak.
The hope is that better education will lead to better prevention practices and halt the spread of the disease.
"As the crisis continues, our public education campaigns will continue," Stulman said.