Bruno Leclerc, Handicap International’s Field Program Director in Sierra Leone and Liberia, discusses the Ebola epidemic and how Handicap International is helping to bring the outbreak to an end.
What has been Handicap International’s role in the fight against Ebola?
Handicap International helps by managing a fleet of 30 ambulances which are used exclusively to combat the Ebola epidemic. Each ambulance is accompanied by a decontamination team who spray the places where the infected patient has been with chlorinated water to avoid contaminating his or her family and friends. We have transported more than 1,500 patients to treatment centers so far.
We’re also conducting awareness-raising campaigns targeted at people with special needs, including people with disabilities, people with HIV and AIDS, sex workers, and children. When we talk to deaf and hearing-impaired people, it’s obvious that they are very badly informed. They know something’s happening, but don’t known anywhere near as much about it as the rest of the population.
The media his reporting a drop in the number of Ebola cases. Does that tie in with what you’re seeing in the field?
Yes, there are definitely fewer cases, and we’re feeling much more hopeful about the future. The signs are very encouraging, particularly in Liberia, where there’s been a very big drop in the number of new confirmed cases. But we need to remain alert. One badly treated case could lead to a new outbreak. In Sierra Leone, for example, although the situation has improved a lot, there are still around one hundred new cases a week.
How are people coping in the affected areas?
People are feeling demoralized because of the very severe restrictions placed on them since last summer, which didn’t lead to a drop in the number of new cases until the last few weeks. Everyone is really happy to finally get some good news, but there’s also a risk that people are going to start feeling a false sense of security. We need to redouble our efforts so that people who are tired of living under the weight of these health protocols continue applying them, so that we can finally bring the epidemic to an end.
A lack of information about disease prevention played a major role in the spread of Ebola. Are people better now informed? Has it led to improvements?
The information campaign has been extremely well organized and most people are fairly well informed about how the virus is passed on. However, some people still haven’t taken on-board the awareness messages. For example, it’s very complicated to persuade certain communities to give up their funeral rites (which are responsible for more than half of all new contaminations), which involve touching the body of the deceased to wash it and allow the soul to rest in peace. According to their beliefs, the fate of a person’s soul doesn’t depend on the life they led but on their funeral. These communities are frightened of being haunted by spirits, so they’re reluctant to tell the health authorities when someone dies, because they know the body will be taken away in a black plastic bag. This has been taken into consideration now and measures have been taken to make the process of taking the body away more acceptable.
Do you think that the epidemic can be brought under control in the future?
We need to stay positive. There are fewer and fewer outbreaks in the region. Most new cases are in Freetown, but it still has a population of two million people and there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of health. We’ve got enough money and equipment now, but we still have big problems finding manpower. It’s vital that everyone stay focused to make sure that we bring this epidemic under control as fast as possible because it has already had dire humanitarian consequences and the population really is at the end of its tether. Once the epidemic is over, we need to help communities that have experienced great hardship and provide people who have fallen ill with psychological and social support. We also need get all of the country’s institutions up and running again, especially schools and health facilities.