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Sierra Leone

We have five weeks to bring the Ebola outbreak under control

By Éamonn Meehan

From localised beginnings, the Ebola outbreak has rapidly grown into first a national and now a regional crisis. Health services outside of West Africa, including our own in Ireland, are on high alert to ensure that this does not become a full-blown international outbreak.

Having just returned from Sierra Leone, where I saw first-hand the potential for the virus to spread at a frightening rate, one thing is very clear: the battle against Ebola will be won or lost in West Africa.

There are currently 10,000 cases throughout the region but at the rate it is spreading, it is feared that by December there could be 3,000 new cases a week in Sierra Leone alone. If that were to happen, the country simply could not cope. We have a strict time-frame of five weeks in which to bring this outbreak under control.

Prevent the spread of EbolaPhoto caption: Fatu Sesay washes her hands at a handwashing station. In Sierra Leone, Trócaire is working with Caritas to prevent the spread of Ebola. Photo credit: Tommy Trenchard for Caritas

Sierra Leone is already a desperately poor country. The health services here were extremely weak even before this outbreak. To give an illustration of just how poor Sierra Leone is, one in five children do not reach their fifth birthday.

The weak structures that exist in Sierra Leone are desperately struggling to contain the most serious threat to the country since the brutal civil war came to an end in 2002.

There is an urgent need for more health centres, more beds and more medically trained personnel. Resources simply aren’t coming on stream fast enough and the world needs to take note.

Attempts to halt the spread of the virus were hampered in the early weeks by a lack of information about how to reduce the risk of contamination. A mistrust of Government made matters worse as people did not believe what they were being told.

Trócaire is working with local leaders, both religious and civic, to get vital messages into communities. These initiatives are helping to tackle the spread of the virus.

The potential spread of the virus in the capital city, Freetown, is particularly worrying. There are over one million people living in Freetown and there are already 1,000 cases of Ebola in the city. Given how close people live together, there is a real fear that it could spread quickly.

Aside from the health risks posed by Ebola, this crisis has had many devastating side-effects. People are now too scared to go to health clinics and are dying of other diseases, such as malaria. Tens of thousands of women will give birth over the coming months without any medical assistance.

The crisis has also increased poverty. There have been redundancies due to businesses closing, while restrictions on movement have meant that farmers can’t bring their crops to market. The lowest paid and most vulnerable are suffering most.

In addition, schools are closed and there is a likelihood that many children will not return to the classroom.  

Even if the Ebola outbreak was to be contained today, these long-term issues will pose enormous challenges for Sierra Leone over the coming months and years. Neighbouring countries, including Guinea and Liberia, face similar problems.

Trócaire will work with communities for long-term responses to these problems. Right now, however, the focus has to be on stopping the virus from taking any more lives.

There is a global panic about the possibility of Ebola crossing seas and continents with the same ease at which it crossed national borders. We must avoid knee-jerk reactions, however. The decision of Australia to suspend entry visas for people from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa will needlessly increase fear and stigma.

As the director of a local organisation said to me in Freetown: “Isolate the virus, but don’t isolate Sierra Leone”.

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