Beatrice Gbanga (left), medical and health coordinator for the United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign in Sierra Leone, is briefed on efforts to contain the Ebola virus by Mbalu Fonnie, head nurse in the hemorrhagic fever ward at the government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone.
By Julia Kayser Frisbie*
August 7, 2014—The United Methodist Church has been present with the people of West Africa since the beginning of the Ebola epidemic this spring. As the disease picks up speed, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is ramping up its response. A total of $87,000 in grant money has been distributed, and UMCOR stands ready to fund additional projects. Our healthcare networks have been activated to get the word out about prevention and treatment. Lifesaving supplies and protective equipment are on their way to Sierra Leone and Liberia right now.
It’s the largest Ebola outbreak in recorded history, affecting Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and now Nigeria. As of this writing, the disease has infected more than 1,700 people and killed at least 932. It produces hemorrhagic fevers, causing between 50 and 90 percent of people who contract it to lose their lives. There is no cure. It’s also highly infectious. The virus can be transmitted by any bodily fluid, including saliva, urine, blood and even sweat.
In the past, the relative isolation of affected communities has stymied the disease before it infected more than a few hundred people. But West Africa is densely populated, and people are more mobile than ever before, which has allowed Ebola to spread with alarming speed. Cultural practices such as eating bush meat, caring for the sick at home, and preparing bodies for burial also elevate the risk of transmission.
Local governments have urged anyone with a fever to be tested and quarantined. This directive has been met with suspicion and fear. Families fear that if they send a loved one to quarantine, they will never see them again. The truth is that, with medical care such as intravenous fluids, infected people have a better chance of survival. But some families have even gone so far as to hide their sick relatives from government officials and medical teams.
“The real battle is fear, and communities not trusting health facilities,” says Shannon Trilli, UMCOR’s global health consultant. “If people don’t trust the government and the healthcare providers, they’re not going to get help. At the same time, this is where the church, seen as a trusted thought- and opinion-leader in many communities, can help.”
Protecting healthcare providers, keeping hospitals open
The people at highest risk of infection are those who care for the sick: doctors and nurses. One of those was Sheik Umar Khan, the leading virologist in Sierra Leone. He treated more than 100 patients before succumbing to the disease. Many hospitals in the affected areas have simply closed their doors because they don’t have adequate supplies to protect their staff. This means that nobody can get medical care, whether they’re pregnant, HIV positive or sick with malaria.
UMCOR is working to support United Methodist healthcare facilities so that they can keep their doors open. A $50,000 grant through the ACT Alliance provides for training, equipment and construction of an isolation unit in Liberia. UMCOR has also granted $25,000 to the Sierra Leone Annual Conference to provide supplies and build an isolation unit at Mercy Hospital.
United Methodist Global Ministries missionaries in West Africa have been given the opportunity to leave affected countries, but many—especially our medical missionaries—have elected to stay. These missionaries have evacuation plans in place for the worst-case scenario, and they’ve been advised to take every precaution to protect themselves.
Beatrice Gbanga, a Global Ministries missionary and health board coordinator in Sierra Leone, used a recent bed net distribution to get the word out about Ebola prevention. She stresses the importance of using protective equipment. “Nurses have died of Ebola,” she said. “I am a nurse. I can see the risk. We must be prepared.”
The health and safety of doctors and nurses is one of UMCOR’s priorities. Thousands of face masks, gloves, and other protective equipment is on its way to West Africa right now. UMCOR is also sending saline, disposable needles and syringes because the main treatment for Ebola patients in IV fluids.
Dr. Wilfred S. Boayue, chair of the Liberia Annual Conference Health Board, writes: “Our hospital at Ganta is still open. It is the only major facility open within a 100-mile radius… We keep reminding the staff to be very careful and use whatever protective gear they have.” A treatment unit specifically for Ebola should be completed in a few weeks.
The Church as a Loudspeaker
|Workers erect a temporary isolation ward for patients with the Ebola virus at the government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
The Ganta United Methodist Hospital now functions not only as a treatment center, but as a hub for the national public awareness campaign. In addition to their normal duties, the staff is helping the Liberian government to get the word out through pamphlets, radio programs and word of mouth.
The messaging for these awareness campaigns has to walk the line between emphasizing the threat Ebola poses and reassuring citizens that it’s worth it to seek medical care. “People who get Ebola [have a] better chance for survival if they notice it quick and begin to get the proper treatment,” says the narrator in a BBC radio spot that ran in Sierra Leone “to tackle misinformation about the virus.” The announcement describes the symptoms of Ebola and urges people to go to the hospital instead of caring for Ebola patients in the home.
Bishop John K. Yambasu of Sierra Leone sees the church’s role as not only a healthcare provider, but a loudspeaker. “As religious leaders,” he writes, “our followers listen to us more than they do politicians, especially on matters relating to faith and health.” An inter-religious task force on Ebola, which he chairs, has called for three days of prayer and fasting, August 6-8.
“Our goal is to… work with the government and other nongovernmental organizations to give hope to those communities and persons who are going through pain, fear and denial,” writes Bishop Yambasu. “Ebola is real. In spite of the threat it poses to life, all is not lost. There is hope for intervention if people seek early medical help.”
In a pastoral letter issued last month, Bishop John G. Innis of Liberia urged United Methodists and the people of Liberia to “accept the fact that the Ebola Virus is actually present in Liberia” and “observe every medical advice given by Health authorities and institutions” there. “Specifically” he wrote, “United Methodist Pastors, District Superintendents and Sunday School Teachers must share the information about the Ebola virus with their local churches and districts.”
What you can do: pray, share and give
Ecumenical leaders in both Sierra Leone and Liberia have called for three days of fasting and prayer, August 6-8. If you can participate, please do. This is also a good time to activate your church’s prayer chain.
Public awareness will be crucial to stopping the spread of Ebola. You can help spread good information by sharing this article with your friends, family and social network. Your gift to International Disaster Response, Advance #982450, empowers UMCOR to continue its crucial work in the fight against Ebola and in response to other natural and human-caused disasters.
*Julia Kayser Frisbie is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org