Following an initial outbreak in Guinea last March, the latest Ebola epidemic in West Africa spread rapidly to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. Handicap International runs programs for people with disabilities in both countries. The number of cases attributed to Ebola fever currently stands at 1,201, including 672 deaths. Specialists are particularly concerned about a recent surge in the number of new cases. Bruno Leclercq, Handicap International’s field program director in Sierra Leone and Liberia, told us about the fears of people on ground and the efforts being made by humanitarian operators to stem the epidemic.
“Everyone’s worried about the growing epidemic, including our teams, whose work involves visiting areas that may be contaminated,” said Leclercq. “We’re taking precautions and we no longer visit the worst affected areas, particularly in the extreme east of Sierra Leone.”
Handicap International has been present in Sierra Leone since 1996 and Liberia since 2000, where its projects include inclusive education and mother and child health. Our field teams have recently been taking part in national awareness campaigns.
“We’re trying to get the awareness message across to prevent new infections,” said Leclercq. “But it’s not always easy. We need to convince families not to ritually wash the dead, for example, and to avoid eating meat from wild animals such as monkeys and bats, because disease can easily transfer from the meat to humans. This is difficult because bush meat makes up a substantial portion of the local diet.”
The epidemic is believed to be the biggest ever and has yet to peak, raising fears among health authorities and sapping the morale of the local population. “It’s never far from your mind,” said Leclercq. “People don’t shake hands any more, they fist bump to limit the risk of transmitting this highly contagious virus. Tanks of chlorinated water have been placed at entrances to public buildings and NGO premises. That’s a very good thing. We need to encourage everyone to be cautious, but not to panic, because otherwise we won’t be able to prevent infections or identify, quarantine, and treat those infected in time.”