Health care workers listen intently during a panel discussion at the United Methodist Church's Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone in advance of the Ebola virus outbreak.
By Linda Unger*
September 26, 2014—The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is working with United Methodist health boards in West Africa in a “three-prong” approach to confront the spread of the Ebola virus, said UMCOR International Disaster Response and Global Health executives.
Community education about the disease, health worker protection and psychosocial counseling for affected people and their families are the strategy’s three prongs, said Dr. Olusimbo Ige, of Global Health, which, like UMCOR, is under the direction of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Ige, a medical doctor who specializes in infectious diseases, said the approach seeks to address two “major concerns” that are essential for containing Ebola.
“First,” she said, “is the capacity of local health networks to respond to sick cases. Currently there are not enough medical personnel to follow up with people complaining of symptoms. These people then go home to their families, and the disease spreads. Once a critical number of cases is passed, the disease spreads exponentially,” she warned.
Second, Ige said, are belief systems. “People in the affected countries distrust their health systems, their government systems and foreign organizations. So, messages about Ebola containment from these sources are not taken seriously. People often will hide their sick relatives rather than bring them to the hospital.
“It is a peculiarity of this outbreak that people don’t take it seriously and don’t seek care,” she continued. “When they do, it is often too late.”
In the six months since the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified of the Ebola outbreak, 6,263 cases of the disease have been confirmed or suspected in five countries, with most occurring in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. As of September 21, there have been 2,917 deaths attributed to the disease.
WHO, in a recent report, said that over the course of these six months, the outbreak has evolved into “the largest, most severe and most complex outbreak in the history of the disease.” And, it indicated, “The epidemic of EVD [Ebola Virus Disease] is still spreading.”
Executing the strategy
“Our approach is to work closely with United Methodist health boards in affected countries, listening closely to them as they identify needs and strategies we can support,” said Rev. Jack Amick, UMCOR executive who heads the organization’s International Disaster Response unit.
Amick is in charge of disbursing UMCOR emergency funds, while Ige advises that distribution in the case of the Ebola response. Together, they hold a weekly conversation by telephone with the United Methodist health boards in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“We also have layered our response with the cooperation of trusted partners, including MAP International, ACT Alliance and GlobalMedic,” Amick said.
To date, UMCOR has channeled more than $400,000 in emergency funds to confront Ebola, chiefly to Liberia and Sierra Leone. It also has provided funds to the health board of Cote d’Ivoire to assist its efforts to promote awareness and take preventive measures to keep Ebola at bay.
In Liberia and Sierra Leone, UMCOR funds are helping to keep United Methodist hospitals and clinics open and to train personnel to respond to the disease.
In addition, said Ige, “We are ensuring that health workers, who are most at risk of contracting and succumbing to Ebola, have all the personal protective equipment, all the training and all the resources they need to help patients and to link them with nationally designated treatment centers.”
According to WHO, 373 health workers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria have contracted Ebola since the outbreak began, and 208 health workers have died of the disease.
UMCOR funding also supports psychosocial care and community messaging about prevention and treatment. “We are telling people that Ebola is an infection not witchcraft,” Ige said. “If you don’t acknowledge it is an infection, you won’t take precautions.”
She underscored the critical role faith communities play in getting this message across. “People trust religious communities more than other institutions. There is huge potential for religious communities and figures to impact behavior. When a bishop urges people to seek care, it resonates,” she said.
“Our approach is to rely on messaging from the church and to encourage religious leaders to speak out about the need for prevention. Community awareness campaigns by respected members also can have a big impact.”
How you can help
“UMCOR’s goal is always to alleviate suffering. We support people as they cope with the effects of a disaster, or, when a disaster is ongoing, we seek to help them avoid continual impact,” said Amick. “As long as the Ebola epidemic persists in West Africa, UMCOR will continue to partner with United Methodist health boards to provide appropriate responses to the disaster.”
Ige concurred and invited all people of faith and humanitarian concerns who are interested in responding to the Ebola crisis to coordinate with UMCOR, “so we are all working in the same direction,” she said.
She stressed that disaster response in the event of a disease outbreak such as Ebola is very specific. “The important thing is to break the chain of transmission,” she said. “To do this, supplies must have specific qualities. They must be infection-control grade, meet national and international standards, and they must be needed by the impacted communities.”
Echoing Amick’s words , she underscored UMCOR’s close work with local health boards, which are working with their governments to contain the further spread of Ebola. This close relationship positions UMCOR well to hear and respond to specific needs.
Giving to UMCOR International Disaster Response, Advance #982450 is, she said, “the best way to channel aid” to stem this disaster.
*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.