Church workers say hunger and panic are major problems in Liberia and Sierra Leone as neighbourhoods are sealed off in an effort to curb the spread of ebola. photo/Ahmed Jallanzo, EPA

Ebola frontlines still in Africa, not U.S.

  • October 10, 2014

As the ebola death toll in West Africa surpassed 3,300, North American media were reporting a single, isolated case in Dallas with minute-by-minute, 24-hour coverage. For the Caritas network the focus is on Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone where fragile, underfunded health care systems are faced with daily deaths and new infections. 

Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Caritas head of delegation to the United Nations in Geneva, arrived in the Liberian capital Sept. 26 for a first-hand look at the situation, and to offer the support of the international Caritas network including Catholic health care resources from around the world. So far Liberia has had about 3,500 cases and almost 2,000 deaths. 

Ultimately, ebola will have to be defeated by Liberians themselves, Vitillo told The Catholic Register

“But it needs international attention and help because the health system here is overwhelmed. The social and economic impact is tremendous already,” he said. “People can’t work, they can’t feed their families and also there’s the whole issue of stigma and discrimination even against those who have recovered.” 

Caritas is trying to help local staff to reopen St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital run by the Ghanaian Brothers of St. John of God in Monrovia. The most advanced teaching hospital in Liberia, the Catholic institution has been closed since nine of its medical staff, including its director Br. Patrick Nshamadze, died of the disease in August. 

Of the 17 Catholic health care centres in Liberia 14 have remained open through the crisis, despite the danger to health-care workers, Vitillo said. Most of the government-sponsored hospitals and clinics have closed, leaving Catholic health care swamped not only with ebola but with the entire range of health emergencies in a country of 4.2 million. 

But the Catholic response isn’t limited to hospitals, clinics and dispensaries. Public education campaigns to try to quell the fears of a population which is suspicious of government is an essential role for the Church, Vitillo said. 

“I don’t want to say it’s only a medical solution, because social mobilization is very important too,” he said. 

That mobilization has included adapting public education teams originally formed to spread accurate information about HIV and AIDS to the ebola crisis. The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary send the teams out from the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences into some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city and to remote villages. 

Among the volunteers for the FMM education teams are people living with HIV who bring experience with the stigma and fear an unknown disease can inspire. 

“They’re getting great response,” said Vitillo. “Because these are people who are already prepared to teach, to be factual, to be simple in their communication — and they’re dynamic people.” 

That kind of local response of hope and faith is just what Spiritan Father Francis Folleh is hoping for as he tracks the disease from St. Joseph’s parish in Toronto. Folleh is from Sierra Leone and still has three siblings in the country whom he calls regularly for updates. 

“The Church in Sierra Leone is doing great… finding ways to disseminate information, finding out what they need to do,” Folleh said. 

While Foley’s family in Sierra Leone remains in good health, the death toll has hit close to home for the African missionary in Canada. 

“Of those many people who have died, I know some,” Folleh said. “I lost some classmates who went into the medical field.” 

For most Africans, it is natural to turn to the Church for help in a crisis. 

“When there are problems, a crisis, people turn to prayer,” Folleh said. 

In Liberia, church attendance both on weekends and weekdays has increased given that people cannot go to work, said Vitello. Arriving at churches, people are greeted by a bucket of diluted bleach at the door where they are instructed to wash their hands before entering. Once inside, the churches have a strict “no touch” policy. The sign of peace is limited to a respectful bow. Communion is taken in the hand. 

Ebola has hit the poor hardest. 

“They may not have knowledge about how to avoid this kind of thing. They live in conditions that are often unsanitary. They may have other conditions that have affected their immune system,” said Vitillo. “So I think you can say that many of the people who are being affected are poor.” 

Catholic doctors, nurses and others are rushing in to Liberia to try to strengthen the weakened, underfunded health system. 

Brown University infectious disease specialist Dr. Timothy Flanigan, a permanent deacon from Providence, Rhode Island, is working with Fr. John Toai, a trained physician’s assistant from Vietnam currently studying in Rome. The pair are training local staff and helping keep hospitals open. 

While Liberia has already run through its limited supply of the Canadian-developed, American-manufactured ZMapp drug, the pharmaceutical advance remains a hopeful development, said Vitillo. 

“If we could do more research, both on ZMapp and on other possible medications, it would be a wonderful solution if those drugs became available very soon,” he said. “With ZMapp, it was effective with some people and not with others and no one knows why yet.” 

Traditional public health measures, including education about how the disease is transmitted, has proven the most effective weapon in the battle. The rate of infection is beginning to slow, with the World Health Organization reporting that the August rate of two new infections arising from each person infected is now down to 1.38 new infections for each infected person. 

“If we can get that below one-to-one then we can see that the virus and the chain of its spread is on its way out,” said Vitillo. 

Contributions to the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian partner in the Caritas network, are being directed to Caritas Sierra Leone. 

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