Ebola: Battling fear and stigma

  • May 6, 2014

By Lulu Nellemann, 14, interning for the day at the PS Centre

West African countries are experiencing an Ebola outbreak. The disease is thought to originate from forest animals and spread to human beings through the handling or eating of dead animals, such as monkeys and bats. Ebola kills up to 90 per cent of those infected, though the fatality rate in the current outbreak has lessened significantly. The flu-like symptoms (high fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea) are similar to those of Ebola and hence difficult to identify. To prevent the spread of disease, it is necessary to isolate those who may be infected for a period of 21 days.

Ebola causes panic and stigma

Family and community play important roles in West Africa, providing practical, social and emotional support. A long period of isolation from the community and family often leads to sadness and feelings of hopelessness. Isolated people may also feel guilty or ashamed if they feel they are endangering their family or are unable to work to support them.

Faced with dangerous and contagious diseases like Ebola, people are often afraid of being infected, and want to protect themselves and those they love. This fear, especially when coupled with poor knowledge about how to prevent the disease and lack of resources to set up protective measures, can lead to panic and stigmatization of those who have been in contact with the sick or have been handling dead bodies. Those most at risk of experiencing stigmatization and being shunned by the community are health care workers and Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers.

Pyschosocial support helps re-integration

Liberia thus far has only seen a few Ebola cases. Psychosocial support delegate Kirsten Abdallah met a man who participated in a funeral and was then put in isolation for 21 days because the deceased was infected by the disease. After having been cleared by the medical staff and released from isolation, the community remained afraid of infection and shunned the whole family; his children could no longer attend school. To mitigate the stigma, the Red Cross team talked to the minister of the local church, a much respected person in the community, who then convinced the school to re-admit the children. The family was also openly welcomed in church, which demonstrated to the community that there was nothing to fear.

This example showcases two major challenges for psychosocial support: fear and stigma. Even after medical clearance, it can be difficult for people suspected of infection to resume normal life. Educating communities about the nature of the disease, how it spreads – and does not spread – and how to protect against it is an important tool during such an epidemic.

Public information messages

As part of a broad public information campaign on Ebola reaching more than 2 million people in Sierra Leone, the Red Cross and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation share information via SMS to inform on how to prevent the spread of disease and recognize symptoms: “RedCross/MoHS: Wash hands with soap after touching sick people”.